The fruit from the orange tree in her backyard has tasted bitter and sour ever since Lillian Simpson moved to De Soto Street in 2017. Her two lemon trees don’t even produce any fruit.
That discourages the 67-year-old Acres Homes resident from going outside, and so do her allergies and respiratory problems. Simpson said all those issues have been exacerbated by the neighboring business two lots to the west, where large trucks haul concrete in and out on all days of the week.
“If it went (away) right this minute, I’d be happy,” Simpson said Tuesday morning from her front porch. “That would be the most satisfying thing to me.”
Simpson is not alone in her opposition to Soto Ready Mix, the concrete delivery company that has occupied the property at 3411 De Soto St. since 2015. Acres Homes residents have spent the last two years trying to run the company out of the neighborhood as it seeks to become a facility that mixes and produces concrete, a notoriously dusty process that affects air quality and the health of those nearby.
The homeowners’ fight has been fortified by elected officials at the municipal, state and federal level, who gathered Tuesday to send a clear message to the historically black neighborhood, the concrete company and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which has the sole authority to approve or deny a pending application for a permit that would allow Soto Ready Mix to permanently operate a concrete batch plant.
“The placement of this facility in unacceptable,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “I’ve said to my city legal department to take a look at all possible options to keep this facility from being located right next door to where people live.”
Turner, an Acres Homes native who still lives in the neighborhood, was joined Tuesday by two Houston City Council members, two state legislators and a United States congresswomen. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, state Rep. Jarvis Johnson and state Sen. John Whitmire also expressed their opposition to Soto Ready Mix’s presence in the largely residential community.
The fenced-in property of Soto Ready Mix, where a cement-mixing truck pulled in shortly after Tuesday’s news conference, is surrounded by homes and the Highland Park Community Center, which welcomes more than 20 children per day according to a City of Houston employee who works there. According to TCEQ spokesperson Brian McGovern, Soto Ready Mix has requested a maximum production rate of 180 cubic yards per hour and plans to operate up to 8,760 years per year.
“We’ve got to continue to fight,” said Johnson, who represents the area.
Armando Soto, the owner of Soto Ready Mix, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
TCEQ executive director Toby Baker ruled last year than Soto Ready Mix’s batch plant application – initially denied in 2018 – meets the requirements of applicable law. But after backlash from homeowners such as David and Donna Williams, who are 20-year residents in a home next door, the TCEQ in October referred the case to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Jan. 23 at the Houston City Hall at 901 Bagby St., where one or more administrative law judges will determine who has standing in the case and how the legal proceeding will progress over the span of several weeks. After the final hearing, SOAH will make a recommendation to the TCEQ about whether to approve or deny the permit application.
But the TCEQ is not legally bound to follow the proposal made by the SOAH. TCEQ commissioners Bobby Janecka, Emily Lindley and Jon Niermann, the chairman, will make the final determination.
After that point, the losing party could request a re-hearing and, if denied again, could file a petition for a judicial review in Travis County District Court.
“I think people recognize that unless we all stand up collaboratively, collectively, you’re going to have more of these type of facilities being located in people’s neighborhoods,” Turner said. “Today it’s right here in the Acres Homes area. Tomorrow is could be some other place.”
Turner said the city passed ordinances in 2007 that sought to regulate concrete batch plants such as the one proposed by Soto Ready Mix, but those ordinances were subsequently nullified by the Texas Supreme Court. The city still has kept a close eye on the company, issuing Soto Ready Mix 34 citations for a range of violations during the last year.
Those actions have not deterred Soto Ready Mix from proceeding with its plan to operate a batch plant. But nearby homeowners have not been deterred in their opposition, which has picked up some significant firepower.
David Williams said the show of support from elected officials have given him and his wife more hope they’ve had in a while. Simpson feels much the same way.
“At one point it just seemed that there was nothing that could be done,” Simpson said. “But to see everybody come out and be involved and take initiative, it’s a glorious thing to see.”