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The Dallas City Council was set to make its final vote Wednesday to approve a new urban farm at 12000 Greenville Avenue. Last week, though, planners pulled the project from the council’s agenda and cast doubt on whether it will ever be built at all.

What a shame.

The project, originally championed by Bonton Farms and adopted by Atlanta-based City of Refuge when Bonton Farms bowed out, was a way to harness the energy of individuals recovering from homelessness, incarceration and sex trafficking. They’d live in tiny homes on the place and work on its farm and other facilities. The Lake Highlands community would patronize its co-working space, farmers market, restaurant, coffee shop and other offerings. Win-win.

Until it wasn’t.

Two councilmembers in an economic development committee meeting last week accused D10 rep Adam McGough of double-dealing and refused to vote for the project. Journalists released leaked emails in which McGough asked the city attorney if he could legally accept employment with City of Refuge. The nonprofit’s founder, Bruce Deel, told two councilmembers that McGough planned to take a job leading City of Refuge Lake Highlands, according to the Dallas Morning News.

City of Refuge withdrew its proposal indefinitely.

Some details remain unclear, but the fiasco leaves me feeling frustrated for our community. Here’s why.

1) After years of being called NIMBYs by folks in other neighborhoods of Dallas because Lake Highlands opposed old-style homeless shelters, McGough rallied LH around the urban farm concept. Residents have been enthusiastic about donating and volunteering when the farm is finished.

2) As Advocate’s Christina Hughes Babb wrote in this heavily researched piece, Lake Highlands has become the eviction capital of Dallas County. We’ve long dealt with our share of the county’s unsheltered and panhandling population, but we became an “eviction hotspot” during the pandemic, when large numbers of hard-working, tax-paying people unexpectedly became ill and/or lost their jobs. Many of these people need the kind of wrap around services and sense of community the urban farm can uniquely provide. All of Lake Highlands will benefit when these folks are off the streets and making a contribution.

3) McGough has been accused of bypassing local nonprofits and rushing approval of City of Refuge’s plans, but the farm was years in the planning and city staff say no other nonprofits – local or otherwise – expressed interest in the long-vacant land at 12000 Greenville. The City of Dallas sometimes moves at a glacial pace to approve proposals from building permits to goodwill programs, and acceptance by neighbors is typically the highest hurdle. No other project has captured the imagination of Lake Highlands quite like the urban farm.

4) If McGough even thought about accepting a job with City of Refuge – or any other nonprofit with business before the council – he showed bad judgment, at the very least. But that’s not the most heartbreaking part. When the urban farm was first proposed for Greenville Avenue, the council unanimously approved it twice, and councilmembers from other districts asked how they could get one for their own neighborhoods. Now they are running from the whiff of scandal and calling for anyone but City of Refuge to bid on the deal. It’s possible another nonprofit can jump in and make it work, but the city’s RFP (request for proposal) process is onerous and time-consuming. While we wait, donors and volunteers stand ready to get started at the farm. Every day, people desperate to build new lives after trafficking, incarceration or homelessness wait, too.

“This is a unique opportunity with a unique partner,” Lake Highlands neighbor Bill Boyd told the full council last week. “Naturally anything like this comes with a cost, but what is the cost for the City of Dallas – the use of some vacant land. Since it was first developed in the 1960s and has been owned by various governmental entities basically that whole time, (12000 Greenville Avenue) has been little more than a construction and vehicle staging area. You have rightfully spent more on other solutions. Here is one that will cost the city precious little because of its debt-free model. And, importantly, the Lake Highlands community supports it.”

Note: Bonton Farms in southern Dallas is pictured above. Photos by Carol Toler.