When Huffines Communities began to clear land and burn trees this year for an upcoming subdivision in an unincorporated area near Allen and Lucas, residents and conservationists became concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the controversial land-clearing method.
Residents told The Dallas Morning News that they worry about the potential health risks for people with asthma or lung-related diseases. Some are now seeking stricter conservation safeguards and want the county to follow an interpretation of the law that limits outdoor burning.
Jeff Henderson, a firefighter who lives near the burn site, said his house was filled with the smell of smoke in February when the developer burned the first round of trees.
“At some point, it is a health hazard,” he said. “It’s just not healthy to breathe that crap.”
Conservationists say the burning is “deeply concerning” because the area is part of Texas’ Blackland prairie — an endangered ecoregion with only 1% of its original vegetation remaining, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Other agencies estimate that only 0.1% remains, and the U.S. Nature Conservancy says it’s the most threatened ecology in North America for extinction.
“Every fragment is precious. Every acre is precious,” said environmental scientist Lorelei Stierlen, who is in charge of conservation and restoration for the Blackland Prairie Raptor Center in Lucas.
This isn’t the company’s first interaction with North Texans upset about land clearing.
Don Huffines, who co-owns the company with his brother, is running for governor of Texas. Representatives from Huffines Communities and the Huffines campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
When the organization burned a second time in August, a resident contacted a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigator, who came out a few hours later and conducted an on-site air quality test.
The results were within the acceptable range for federal air quality standards — but just barely, according to reporting by KERA.
The agency cited Huffines Communities for an air-quality violation, the station reported. But the TCEQ can’t regulate outdoor burning and fire safety — that’s the county’s job, a TCEQ spokesperson said.
Eventually, Huffines Communities stopped burning the pile of trees, and used a wood chipper instead, according to KERA.
But the legal limbo of living in an unincorporated area left some residents with a burning question: Who can regulate and put out the fire?
Residents contacted local fire authorities, the county commissioners court and TCEQ. They said the burning is legal, and it’s not their job to regulate it.
Per state law, cities can ban outdoor burning and issue burn permits.
But it’s unclear who is in charge of regulating this in unincorporated county areas. Collin County officials say it’s not their job to issue burn permits — and that state law doesn’t give them the authority to do so.
“We are statutorily unable to do what you have asked of us,” Collin County Judge Chris Hill wrote in an email to residents this summer.
As Texas’ population continues to boom, this might present challenges as developers build neighborhoods on county lands.
Henderson said his concern wasn’t about whether or not the county is allowed to stop the burning, or if the Huffines Communities’ actions were lawful.
“This is not about what’s legal or not. This is about being a good neighbor,” he said.
If the residents want policy change, they’ll need to contact state legislators, Hill said.