By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Margie Schneider was driving near her home in November 1999 when she noticed that an overgrown field at the corner of Barker Cypress and Keith Harrow Boulevard was being cleared for new development. Once a rice farm, the sprawling plot lay nestled between three leafy subdivisions with more than 3,000 houses. She assumed more homes were on the way.
Then the chipper housewife remembered a write-up in the neighborhood association newsletter about a concrete batch plant seeking land in the area. These facilities turn cement, sand and other aggregates into concrete that ready-mix trucks whisk away to construction sites. She knew that one of these operations would instantly change the character of her bucolic enclave.
Suspicious, Schneider called the precinct office of Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. A staff person told her that indeed Frontier Materials Concrete was moving in and it was probably too late to stop it.
The prospect of the plant spewing unhealthy dust onto her world and cluttering the streets with hordes of noisy trucks awakened the spunky mom. Residents mobilized like a village under siege. Schneider's campaign came to encompass similarly embattled communities such as Sunnyside in southeast Houston.
Those residents want to stop a concrete company from moving in but do not have the resources of their well-heeled counterparts to the west. The predominantly African-American neighborhood, which housed the city's main trash dump for decades, is armed with nothing more than the "cries of the citizenry," says Homer Williams, the pastor of Blueridge United Methodist Church.
Neither Schneider nor the people in Sunnyside want concrete banned. They just don't want mixing facilities in their backyards. To prevent that, she has traded her carpools and cookie sheets to lead a crusade that has reverberated around the state. It's a life change that no one, least of all Margie Schneider, could have foreseen.
"I have become an activist of sorts," she says with a hearty laugh.
Schneider also had to become a grim realist, once she found out they were up against an industry that enjoys kid-glove treatment from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the agency in charge of regulating the plants. Concrete companies basically can locate wherever they want in this zoning-phobic part of the world.
She also discovered the impact of the huge contributions the industry pumps into lawmakers' pockets. As the plant opponents made progress, politicians stepped in to try to block these unlikely insurgents. The crusade moved from the neighborhood to a new front: the statehouse in Austin.
The news about the batch plant was a blow to a woman who believed she had found a piece of suburban paradise. When Schneider and husband Scott moved with their little girl into the Deerfield Village subdivision in 1994, they found exactly what they were looking for: an affordable home a half-hour from downtown and even closer to Scott's software engineering office.
Their spacious two-story brick house matched others in the $150,000 to $200,000 range on the peaceful block of green lawns shaded here and there by oak and pecan trees. Daughter Alex could skate with other children down streets with names like Partridge Green and Walnut Cove and attend schools that performed enviably on state tests. They were particularly fond of their pool.
Margie Schneider had worked in sales for different telecommunications companies in her native Dallas, and then in the D.C. area and Seattle after marrying Scott. In Houston she dedicated herself to her family, volunteering more than 200 hours a year at Alex's school and keeping her home spiffy.
Mother and daughter would spend after-school hours walking their dalmatian in the neighborhood's greenbelts or riding bikes along Bear Creek.
The Schneiders were hardly alone in seeking the suburban good life. Subdivisions have mushroomed in this unincorporated area. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD saw record growth last fall -- 3,160 new students -- to become the fifth-largest district in the state. As more families seek to move in, the demand for houses, roads and other infrastructure has surged, along with the need for concrete.
Schneider wondered how it was possible for the TNRCC to approve a permit without the neighborhood knowing about it. She felt sure she could convince whoever needed convincing that there had been a mistake.
"I refused to believe there was nothing we could do if it wasn't up and running yet," recalls Schneider, an athletic-looking 41-year-old whose dark eyes and strong features bear traces of her Mexican and Greek descent.
As with other industries, a concrete batch plant must meet public notice and hearing requirements before it can be constructed. Notice must be published in a general circulation newspaper in the affected area.
Schneider and her neighbors knew nothing about this facility because Frontier Materials Concrete ran its announcement in The Westside Sun, a free weekly with no home delivery in the Deerfield Village vicinity.
When she learned about the plans, Schneider envisioned a mishmash of silos, stockpiles and conveyors. In short, an eyesore. It would also be an anomaly -- the only industrial facility in an otherwise residential neighborhood.
"This is just a crazy place for a concrete batch plant," she says.
Homer Williams sits in his office at Blueridge United Methodist Church on a weekday morning that finds him out of his vestment and comfortably attired in a white polo shirt and baseball cap. A gentle tower of a man, he speaks in a minister's sonorous baritone, eyes glistening as he recalls the past.