Year in review: Voters, leaders buffeted by change

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DRC file photo/David Minton
Eric Mahroum, left, Kathy Duke, Will Travis and Steve Kuzmich view Travis’ results in the race for the Republican nomination for sheriff, during a gathering May 29 at Diamond T Arena. Travis will take office this week.

Effects of the weak state and national economy notwithstanding, significant changes came in 2012 as Denton area residents voted or advocated for them. However, for changes residents have sought to Denton’s gas well rules since 2009, another year of advocating, cajoling, pushing, arguing, demonstrating and wheedling brought scant progress. A moratorium adopted in early 2012 continues into 2013.

 

Elections

Area voters were likely ballot-weary long before Election Day in November, with two local elections held in May, runoffs in June and July and a tax ratification election in September.

The ever-shifting primary elections, originally planned as part of “Super Tuesday” March 6, were finally held May 29, fallout from the state’s ongoing battle with the federal government to draw redistricting lines. But a new district was carved from fast-growing, eastern Denton County and is now represented by Pat Fallon, R-Frisco. The 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature begins Jan. 8.

Carrollton businessman Will Travis upset Benny Parkey’s bid for re-election to sheriff during that Republican primary. Travis will take his first oath as a peace officer in 15 years when he is sworn in Tuesday.

Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs and Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp faced significant challenges to re-election and had to defend their seats in a June runoff. Similarly, a race for an Argyle Town Council seat ended in a tie in May, but Joan Delashaw prevailed in the June runoff.

By July, voters were back to the polls for the Republican primary runoff. In Precinct 5, they elected Doug Boydston as constable. He was sworn in early to fill a vacancy left by Ken Jannereth. Jannereth resigned under pressure May 14 after his appeal on a criminal mischief conviction was denied and he was subsequently ordered to surrender his peace officer’s license.

 

City management

Denton saw some significant turnover at City Hall this year with the departure of several department heads. Eva Poole, from libraries, and Mark Cunningham, from the planning department, left Denton for jobs in other states. Linda Ratliff retired from economic development.

City Manager George Campbell reorganized after Fred Greene, an assistant city manager, retired in August by promoting John Cabrales to assistant city manager and increasing Denton’s roster of assistant city managers to four.

Administrative leadership was missing at Argyle Town Hall for most of the year after former Town Manager Lyle Dresher stepped down in March. During the next eight months after Dresher’s retirement, council members hired and fired an interim town manager, voted to appoint Mayor Matt Smith as interim town manager, threatened to discipline or fire the town secretary and finance director, and hired a permanent town manager.

The lack of leadership seemed to leave the Town Council divided, with unanimous decisions becoming a rare sight. Argyle officials said they hope the new town manager, Charles West, will keep the council focused.

 

First responders

Contract disagreements among Corinth, Shady Shores, Lake Dallas and Hickory Creek almost threatened the operations of the Lake Cities Fire Department.

Five years ago, Corinth gained control of the department after the Lake Cities communities decided to eliminate the department’s governing board in exchange for a five-year fixed contract.

Lake Dallas and Hickory Creek officials felt that Corinth officials bloated the department’s estimated $4.6 million 2012-13 budget with unnecessary line items, including a vehicle replacement fund. They sent a letter listing demands to be met before agreeing to a new contract, which included slashing $600,000 from the proposed budget.

Corinth City Council members planned for a probable withdrawal of the two cities and considered a tax rate increase, in case Corinth and Shady Shores were left to fund the department’s entire budget.

After weeks of meetings and discussions, the municipalities reached an agreement, with a reduced budget. Despite the five-year agreement, Lake Dallas and Hickory Creek officials said they will revisit starting a joint fire department in three years.

 

West Nile virus

As one of the worst-ever West Nile virus outbreaks unfolded in North Texas, some residents pushed back on Denton County’s emergency orders for aerial spraying. Denton and about 10 other area cities opted out of the measure in late August.

A citywide mosquito-monitoring program with the University of North Texas detected the virus much earlier in the year than previous years, which officials blamed, in part, on the mild winter.

Denton began ground spraying in June in areas where human cases were also reported. By the time the aerial spraying was ordered, monitors were reporting a decline in West Nile-positive mosquitoes. Follow-up testing of aerial spraying also showed mixed results in Denton County.

By early November, the county health department reported a total of 184 human cases of the virus, with 55 of those suffering the neuro-invasive form of the disease. Two Denton County residents died from the virus, both older adults with underlying medical conditions.

 

Animal services

City leaders and volunteers in Denton and other area cities focused on improving animal services this year.

In Denton, city leaders broke ground with ceremonial shovels for a new animal shelter to be built on the city’s north side after volunteers raised $2 million for the cause. Volunteers also adopted out 1,532 animals from August to October as part of the nationwide Rachael Ray Adoption Challenge, winning a $5,000 grant for the city.

Concerned residents demanded change in animal control services in some area cities and were successful. Animal control issues in Pilot Point, Krum and Sanger resulted in officials from each city shutting down their respective shelters and contracting with All-American Dogs for animal control services. The Pilot Point-based animal shelter serves about 10 other cities in the region.

Noah’s Ark Animal Shelter ended its contract with Sanger after residents complained that the Gainesville shelter had high euthanasia rates compared to other facilities.

 

Streets

Denton voters approved a $20.4 million bond package in November aimed at rebuilding some of the city’s $96 million in failed streets. Over the summer, an ad hoc committee helped the city develop a list of priority repairs. City leaders will begin work soon and say another bond package could come as soon as 2014.

Shady Shores and Lake Dallas also approved the funds to begin aggressive repairs on some of their roads. Neither city collects a street maintenance tax, but both plan to spend millions soon.

Shady Shores council members agreed to dip into their fund balance to spend $600,000 on road repairs. Town officials say they could spend more than $2 million in the next two years.

Lake Dallas officials are prepping to begin a $2.2 million road repair project along Lakeview Drive in 2013. Officials blame population and traffic increases for the premature aging of some of the surrounding roads. 

Residents of the Wellington subdivision, near Oak Point, learned in January that their homeowners’ association may be responsible for their failing streets. The developer declared bankruptcy and neither the city nor county accepted the roads for maintenance.

County Commissioner Hugh Coleman said Denton County may have more “orphan” subdivisions like Wellington, where developers financed a small tract of housing with a special taxing district.

 

Energy and economic development

Other significant public projects were unveiled this year, but an increasing number of dollars are being considered for private ventures, too.

Denton Municipal Electric announced a major capital improvement program that will take five years and $302 million to complete, including about $208 million in substation and transmission line projects that began this year.

The utility, which gets about 40 percent of its electricity from wind-generated power, also announced an initiative to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations around the city. Six charging locations also came online at the University of North Texas, and campus leaders announced its three turbines, located at Apogee Stadium, were generating more electricity than estimated.

Denton turned some of its focus to the airport and industrial park on the city’s west side, creating the city’s first tax-increment finance district in December to boost development in the area. Residents learned early this year that the city had bypassed voters for the authority to build a natural gas-powered, combined heat and power plant and sell any excess gas there, but the city has yet to identify any potential customers for such a project.

Similarly, a yearlong evaluation of the airport to help boost its marketing and development hit a snag in December when the City Council tabled a proposal to rename it Denton Enterprise Airport. 

City leaders continue to evaluate a controversial proposal for a public-private partnership to build a convention center on UNT property — an issue that dominated the municipal election this spring. A developer is seeking incentives for a $60 million, 318-room, full-service hotel and restaurant that would compete in a regional market. But local hoteliers warned the city in July that current occupancy levels are too low for the project to be viable.

About $100 million in public investment was authorized by just three voters during the November election — bonds that ostensibly will reignite stalled residential development on land between Argyle, Northlake and Flower Mound. The bonds are expected to be used by developers to pay for water and sewer infrastructure for Canyon Falls.

Financial problems forced Highland Capital Real Estate Advisors and McGinnis Real Estate to put the development on hold in 2009, file for bankruptcy protection in 2010 and eventually sell the land in 2012 to Wheelock Street Capital of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The development is expected to add about 2,700 homes and $1 billion in property tax revenue when completed. The Canyon Falls groundbreaking is expected early next year.

Harvest, previously known as Belmont Village, broke ground near Argyle and Northlake in early December. Special taxing districts will help fund development on another 1,000 acres in the same area, which developers say will be another $1 billion investment once completed.

 

Quality of life

Denton residents continued to push the city for stricter regulations over natural gas drilling and production as a moratorium on new permits, which began in January, was again extended in December.

Residents have become increasingly vocal about the city’s slow progress in adopting new rules, a process that has languished since 2009. An employee of one Denton operator, Eagleridge, was indicted for felony illegal dumping, a charge that was later dropped by the Denton County district attorney’s office. Eagleridge sought and received an exception from the moratorium, claiming it had vested rights in its permit application.

Residents also pushed the city to protect the former Fairhaven retirement home in a controversial rezoning case. At one point, the developer’s representatives claimed that Fairhaven’s design could not be attributed to O’Neil Ford, the famed Texas architect. But in a compromise, the developer agreed to preserve the building’s exterior in exchange for the new zoning.

Denton relaxed restrictions on food trucks and backyard chickens, but adopted a public smoking ban in December that will go into effect in April. Bowing to pressure from local businesses, the City Council agreed to exempt bars and bingo parlors from the smoking ban under certain conditions.

The city of Sanger is almost done with the first phase of a sidewalk project that’s expected to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. Officials expect to complete the project within 10 years, depending on funding.

 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is pheinkel-wolfe@dentonrc.com

JOHN HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is jharden@dentonrc.com.


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