Near Fort Worth air base, hundreds live in high-risk crash zone
FORT WORTH, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Neighbors marveled that no one was killed when a jet, making its final approach to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, crashed into a densely populated Lake Worth neighborhood.
Neighbors saw the pilots and their ejection seats falling from the sky, as the plane itself crashed behind a trio of homes and erupted into flames. When the smoke cleared Sept. 19, a twisted and charred hunk of plane rested in the small backyard of one home, several residents had sustained minor injuries and both pilots were injured, one of them seriously enough to remain in the hospital more than two weeks later.
But no one died.
“An aircraft came down in the back of several people’s homes and nobody was killed and that is a miracle,” said John Baxter, the civilian who oversaw the crash cleanup, at the time.
The U.S. Department of Defense agrees — a plane crash in a dense neighborhood could indeed be catastrophic. That’s why it had already labeled that Lake Worth neighborhood an “accident potential zone” for its proximity to the naval air station.
And that’s why the Defense Department recommends the lots should be at least a half-acre each — even though many homes in that neighborhood sit on less than a fifth of an acre.
And, just a few streets to the south, the Defense Department recommends there shouldn’t be any housing at all.
But a Star-Telegram investigation found that more than 200 homes sit on land the Defense Department has labeled unsuitable for residential use because of the risk of an airplane crash.
Although the cities of Fort Worth and Lake Worth have decided that the existing homes can remain despite the risk, no one is responsible for notifying existing or future residents about the dangers. Not the cities, not the county, not the state and not the Navy. There have been loose efforts: the two cities have occasionally mailed notices and, several years ago, the state of Texas added a paragraph about military installations and “air installation compatible use zones” to the standard real estate disclosure form.
But with no comprehensive or clear notification system, renters and buyers are largely left to discover the danger on their own — meaning that even some long-time residents don’t know about the risk designations.
“I didn’t realize it was a crash zone,” said John Sanderson, who’s lived in his Lake Worth neighborhood for more than 20 years. “Anybody that buys a house ... they should be aware that that’s what it is, kind of like a flood zone.”
Lake Worth city manager Stacey Almond hesitated when asked whether it’s safe or wise for residents to live in the crash zones north of the base.
“I prefer not to give my opinion on that,” she said. “I mean, it’s up to each person whether they decide to live in the area or not. I do think that the city is safe. So I don’t think it’s bad to live in those areas.”
G.K. Maenius, the Tarrant County administrator, also said he’d rather not speak to the safety or wisdom of living in a crash zone.
“I think one can draw a conclusion just by the factors that you spoke of, but I don’t want to comment on that,” he said.
The runway, which is also used by Lockheed Martin, handles about 25,000 takeoffs and landings per year, a Navy spokesperson said. A review of the Star-Telegram archives turned up at least five plane crashes near the base in the past 40 years.
In the 1970s, the Defense Department started a program to discourage certain types of development in the immediate area around military bases, where plane crashes are more likely because of the tendency for crashes to occur during takeoff or landing. The Air Installations Compatible Use Zones program has a dual mission — to protect residents and to protect military operations.
The Defense Department recommends no housing of any kind in the areas closest to the runways. No apartment buildings, no mobile homes, no single-family dwellings. But on the north side of Fort Worth’s joint reserve base, census data and county land records show there are more than 200 homes in the riskiest of the crash zones.
In those neighborhoods, which sit on the boundary of Fort Worth and Lake Worth, the planes pass so close that residents say they can sometimes wave to the pilots.
Many of the homes in the northern crash zones were built in the 1940s, decades before the Defense Department released its safety recommendations. And locally, authorities didn’t comprehensively evaluate how to make development compatible with the Fort Worth base until about 2008, when the North Central Texas Council of Governments conducted a study under the Defense Department’s program.
Even when the city of Fort Worth modified its land use rules to prevent future residential development in the crash zones — and when the city of Lake Worth made a similar, though less stringent, move — the existing homes were allowed to stay as-is.
“Generally when you change zoning, whatever’s there, assuming it was there legally, it’s grandfathered,” said Fort Worth assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff. “The existing structures can all stay as they are, there’s no changes that an owner has to make.”
But safety risks exist outside of the standards of city planning. So when it comes to crash risk, it’s “hard to say” whether it’s safe for residents to live in the area, Burghdoff said.
“From a plane operation standpoint, obviously, it’s riskier than other parts of the city,” Burghdoff said. “But at the same time, you know, when there hasn’t been a crash for however many decades in that area, then it’s hard to put that in perspective.”
‘You’re making their decision for them’
It’s up to each person to choose to live in the crash zone or somewhere else, said Maenius, the Tarrant County administrator.
“I think that everybody needs to make up their own mind, they need to be given the information, you know, and the potential dangers as it relates to land use,” he said. “There are different factors people have to consider whenever they buy and they need to consider those.”
In interviews with the Star-Telegram, some residents said they enjoy living near the base, with bugle calls sounding out at regular intervals and the close-flying planes providing front-row seats to a daily air show.
But a number of residents said that, while the designation makes sense given the daily plane traffic, they did not know their homes sat in a plane crash zone.
Hugo Vidal, who lives in the crash zone with his family, said he wishes they had known about the crash zone designation before they bought their house. But at the same time, Vidal doesn’t know how much of a difference it would’ve made.
“You get a good deal on your house, you don’t really care about planes,” he said.
Sanderson, of Lake Worth, said he thinks the base or the city should be responsible for notifying potential home buyers and builders of the crash zone boundaries.
“If you’re going to move into this area, there should be something in your paperwork ... just to say, ‘Hey, just to let you know, this is a crash zone,’” Sanderson said.
The cities of Fort Worth and Lake Worth mailed notices to residences in recent years, when they were considering changing their land use rules to acknowledge the crash zones, according to Almond and Burghdoff. But the mailers primarily served as invitations to public hearings about the changes.
There was also some statewide movement to notify new residents before they purchase homes near military bases. In 2017, the state Legislature added language to the final page of the standard real estate disclosure form.
But the purpose of the new paragraph isn’t to inform potential buyers about property-specific risks in crash zones, according to Robert Gleason, the CEO of the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors. The language is intended to remind potential buyers to check whether properties are near bases and to research the potential impacts.
“The statement on there is just a blanket statement to buyers. And so it places the responsibility on the buyer to look into whether or not they would be located within those zones,” Gleason said. “It’s highlighting the importance, really, of buyers doing that due diligence.”
The disclosure form also has no impact on renters.
The Navy declined to participate in a phone or in-person interview for this story. In email responses, the Navy pointed to the cities’ land use changes and the state Legislature’s real estate disclosure as evidence of its efforts to protect the base and the surrounding community.
But some residents feel the local authorities — whether it’s the city governments or the base itself — should do more to make sure that people know about the zones and the risks.
“You can’t make an informed decision if you don’t have all the facts,” said Karla Lowe, who lives in the Lake Worth section of the crash zone. “I think that when you don’t present people with their options, you’re making their decision for them.”
Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the dueling forces of safety risks and land use “grandfathering,” the 2008 study suggested that Tarrant County and the city of Fort Worth consider buying properties within the crash zones.
The study recommended a “voluntary acquisition” program, meaning that residents wouldn’t be pushed out or forced to sell, but that they could sell their homes if they chose. Such a program could potentially be funded with state or federal dollars and should prioritize the handful of homes that sit in the crash zone closest to the runway, the study said.
But officials say the idea was never seriously or deeply discussed.
In both the city of Lake Worth and Tarrant County, officials said the governments did not pursue a voluntary acquisition program.
“That was something that was a recommendation, which is a good recommendation. But we never made an effort to actively pursue acquiring those properties,” Maenius said. “I don’t think there was a lot of emphasis placed on that particular aspect.”
Burghdoff, the Fort Worth assistant city manager, said the idea was briefly raised on the City Council, but there “wasn’t any political will” at the time to pursue it.
The conversation went “back to the property rights mindset of ... as long as folks are informed, that it’s their choice to live with the risk that they have,” she said.
But the Fort Worth City Council has many new faces. The May election brought unusually high turnover; and for six of the nine members, a seat on the council is the first political office they’ve held.
Recently elected council member Leonard Firestone’s district includes the Fort Worth portion of the crash zones. He said he believes the area is safe to live in but that he’s also a “proponent” of a voluntary acquisition program.
J.D. Johnson, the Tarrant County commissioner for the sections of Lake Worth and Fort Worth that fall within the crash zones, said the area is probably less safe than other parts of the county. He added that, as a county commissioner instead of a city official, he feels there’s “not anything I can do about it.”
Walter Bowen, the Lake Worth mayor, declined to comment for this story.
Some residents, both on the Fort Worth and Lake Worth sides of the crash zones, said they’d support a voluntary buyout program, even if they wouldn’t participate.
Sanderson, of Lake Worth, said he’s unlikely to move in part because he believes there’s a higher risk of dying in a car crash than a plane crash. But he also said that some of his neighbors have children and they should be able to leave if they’re worried about the safety risks.
Jay Findley — a Fort Worth resident who said he’s lived on his lakefront property in the crash zone for about 27 years — said he might consider selling his house under the right conditions. But among his list of requirements would be relocation to another lakefront property.
“It would take a lot to get me off this place,” Findley said.
Lowe said she wouldn’t sell under a voluntary program because she takes care of her mother, who’s lived in the Lake Worth neighborhood for decades. But she still thinks her neighbors should have the choice.
“They should have a right to know that they’re in the direct line to an accident path, and they should have the option to stay or go,” Lowe said.
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