Year in review: Hot and cold in 2013

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Construction work on U.S. Highway 380 is shown west of Denton on Nov. 27.
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Growth continues as weather, roadwork present challenges

Growth dominated Denton County news in 2013, from the halls of the schools to the mall and beyond.

New stores, businesses, schools — and maybe a new convention center and hotel — all made headlines throughout the year as families, businesses and industry moved in and up throughout the area.

New roadway and interstate projects began in an effort to handle the load, and voters approved a bond package for the Denton school district to handle the influx of new students. Governments worked to make adjustments, bringing in new police and new regulations to keep growth in line.

The University of North Texas tapped a new leader to take the helm and new construction was underway at UNT and Texas Woman’s University. And residents are cheering on the Mean Green as they gear up for the Heart of Dallas Bowl game on New Year’s Day.

But the most-talked-about story of the year brought all that growth to an abrupt halt in early December.

An unseasonable arctic blast brought ice and sleet starting Dec. 5 that kept temperatures in the 20s or below and gridlocked most of the area for days. Long lines of tractor-trailer trucks stalled along Interstate 35, putting Denton on the map as one of the hardest-hit areas in North Texas.

One woman died when her truck spun out on the ice and fell into Lewisville Lake. The milestone 25th Denton Holiday Lighting Festival was canceled and schools were out for days in the midst of finals.

It was a chilly way to cap off a hot year.

 

Winter storm

Weather outside was frightful

The storm started with rain on Dec. 5, but by dark, the rain had changed to freezing rain and sleet. It coated cars and roadways and clogged traffic for commuters trying to beat the storm home.

By morning on Dec. 6, Denton was piled high with ice and sleet and roads were virtually impassable. And it just lasted and lasted. Temperatures hovered in the 20s or below, climbing above the freezing mark only days later.

Interstate 35 was eventually closed between Denton and Oklahoma, and 18-wheelers lined up along the side waiting for the roads to be cleared. Warming centers were opened for stranded drivers as Gov. Rick Perry called in the Texas Army National Guard to help.

The Texas Department of Transportation, Denton County and the city of Denton kept crews out around the clock sanding the roadways, but it did little good. Lewisville resident Kayla Alejandra Gawalek, 21, died Dec. 7 after her truck went off a bridge into Lewisville Lake.

Businesses closed for days. UNT and TWU canceled classes and postponed most finals, and public and private schools told students to stay home, some for nearly seven days.

The storm forced the cancellation of the downtown Holiday Lighting Festival, although a scaled-down tree-lighting and Wassail Fest were held the following weekend, and businesses lost out on what would have been a peak weekend for holiday shoppers.

Finally, when the thaw arrived, it brought a new round of hazards. Falling ice caused hazards throughout the area, and some roofs collapsed under the weight of ice and sleet.

The recovery came soon enough for residents to finish holiday shopping, however, and most of the cleanup has been completed as the year winds to a close.

 

Government

What’s in a name? Code enforcement

The Denton City Council’s efforts to step up code enforcement stepped on a few toes.

The council revisited operations of the code enforcement department in 2013 for the first time since passing sweeping reforms of the property maintenance code in 2009 and 2010.

City leaders found that officers investigated more than 16,000 cases in 2012 — five times what they worked five years ago, when employees looked into a problem only after someone called City Hall to complain. As a result, scores more Denton residents have been opening their mail to find a notice of violation from code enforcement.

And scores more complained to council members about it. As the council began considering how to handle the complaints, the department continued to plow ahead, writing nearly 15,000 notices of violations from January to August.

Finally, in September, the council recommended that the department be renamed the Community Improvement Services Division. Council members said they wanted to change the perception — both inside and outside City Hall — that the work is about enforcing community standards.

 

Convention center deal hammered out

After two years of talks, the City Council approved in December an agreement with a Missouri development group that is expected to bring the city a convention center and full-service hotel as soon as 2015.

The public-private partnership deal provides for a $25 million, 100,000-square-foot convention center to be built and owned by the city, but managed by O’Reilly Hospitality Management. O’Reilly and its investment partners will build and manage a $60 million, 300-room full-service hotel and restaurant adjacent to the convention center.

Both projects will be built on about 13.5 acres of land owned by UNT close to Apogee Stadium.

The council’s approval means a project architect may begin a partial design of the convention center sufficient for the city to seek and secure construction bids. If the bids are too high, the city could halt the deal.

Soon after, the city would begin putting the financing together, which includes the likely issue of $25 million in certificates of obligation in 2014. The financing includes a possible special taxing district, known as a tax-increment reinvestment zone.

The city has approached the Denton County Commissioners Court and the Denton school district about contributing some of the new property tax revenue they would receive from the hotel to help the city repay the convention center bonds.

The special taxing district was at the request of the developer, who is being asked to guarantee the city’s bond payments, which are expected to cost more than $2 million per year.

 

Drilling tensions surface

Tension escalated between homeowners and gas drillers throughout the year.

In April, EagleRidge Operating experienced a blowout of a gas well on the west side of the city, adding fuel to concerns raised by residents about the company’s safety and compliance record.

Residents wanted to know why it had taken hours for anyone to call 911 about the blowout and to evacuate homes in the area, on top of concerns raised after the well sites failed local inspections. One employee was indicted for illegal dumping, but the charge was later dropped by the district attorney’s office.

Meanwhile, residents along Vintage Boulevard and Bonnie Brae Street saw the company’s new wells come as close as 250 feet to their homes.

The city of Denton sued EagleRidge over those wells, saying the company was drilling in violation of city ordinances. But EagleRidge contends that its rights to develop the sites were vested under the original permits. The city dropped its lawsuit after a district judge refused to grant a temporary injunction to halt action on the wells.

Now, the city is under a “standstill” agreement with EagleRidge that temporarily halts future drilling but allows the company to continue obtaining fire inspection permits for 12 wells as negotiations continue. The standstill is set to end in January.

 

Towering issues in Bartonville

Disputes over the Bartonville water tower continued to simmer this year.

For nearly three years, conflicts between the town of Bartonville and the Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation over a half-completed water tower have been an ongoing struggle, but in 2013 it appeared officials would resolve the issues.

Bartonville officials said the corporation built the water tower without the proper approval from the town, and they filed for an injunction to halt construction. Critics say the legal battle has been a waste of town funds and that the town should allow the water tower to be built.

Then, in November, Mayor Ron Robertson and Mayor Pro Tem James Farrell abruptly resigned, saying they believe the council is “heading in the wrong direction.”

A special election will be held in May to fill the mayor’s seat.

 

Transportation

Road work finally begins

Work finally began on the long-awaited Interstate 35E expansion project.

City, county and state officials gathered for a ceremonial ground breaking in October to kick off work on the 28.2 mile project. The construction will add general-purpose lanes, managed toll lanes and frontage road improvements from Interstate 635 in Dallas County to U.S. Highway 380 in Denton County.

The existing lanes of the highway will remain free. Phase 1 of the project will add an additional free lane each way from State Highway 121 to U.S. 380, as well as two reversible managed lanes from I-635 to an area around Swisher and Turbeville roads. Phase 1 also includes the expansion of the Lewisville Lake bridge.

Funding for the project will be a joint effort between TxDOT, the Regional Transportation Council and multiple regional partners. AGL Constructors will oversee the project.

 

DCTA expansion approved

The Denton County Transportation Authority won legislative approval to increase representation on its board of directors.

The bill, carried by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, ensures that cities that assess sales tax or have some other financial agreement with the DCTA have a seat on the board.

Denton, Highland Village and Lewisville have representation in the large-cities group on the board. They also are the only three cities that have dedicated a portion of their sales tax to fund the system. Officials in Lake Dallas have expressed interest in joining.

 

Schools

Denton addresses school growth

Voters in the Denton school district in November passed a $312 million bond package that includes construction of four new schools and a ninth-grade addition at Guyer High School, renovations at 17 campuses and energy conservation improvements.

Construction is still underway from a 2007 bond package. Work was completed in August at the district’s seventh middle school, Bettye Myers Middle School in Shady Shores. And construction began on a new elementary, known as Elementary School No. 22, in the Lantana area that is set to open next school year.

The new elementary school set off a series of boundary changes for four existing elementary schools in the southern part of the district. A decision on finalizing those boundaries could come as early as February.

More than 26,000 students are enrolled in the Denton school district this year. In the past six years, enrollment has increased by 25 percent.

 

New school leadership named

Three area school districts saw a change in superintendents this year.

In April, the Krum school board promoted Cody Carroll to succeed Mike Davis, who retired as superintendent Jan. 28. Carroll, who joined the Krum school district in 2012 as its assistant superintendent, had served as interim superintendent from the latter part of January through April before officially being named superintendent.

The following month, the Pilot Point school board hired Byron Terrier of Goose Creek Consolidated School District to succeed retiring Superintendent Glenn Barber.

And in July, the Aubrey school board tapped Deputy Superintendent Debby Sanders as interim superintendent after Superintendent James Monaco resigned. Monaco is now the district’s chief financial officer.

 

Schools renew concerns about security

School security rose to the forefront of concerns in the Denton area after 20 schoolchildren and six adults were killed in a school shooting in December 2012 in Newtown, Conn.

The Argyle school board gave approval for a pilot program in which a select number of district employees would be trained to be armed on campus, and the board took steps toward creating its own police department.

The district named a police chief in October and he officially started work for the district this month. He is helping the district form the new department.

The Aubrey school district officially started its own police department in October, and Liberty Christian School in Argyle began hiring off-duty uniformed officers as a crime deterrent.

 

Colleges and universities

Changes at UNT

UNT President Lane Rawlins announced in March he planned to retire by the end of the year, after serving in an interim position in 2010 and becoming the 15th UNT president in January 2011.

In December, Neal Smatresk, president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a former dean at the University of Texas at Arlington, was named Rawlins’ successor. Rawlins will stay on until February, when Smatresk will assume the role.

Both officials plan to be on hand when UNT faces UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl game on Wednesday. Rawlins will be wearing green and Smatresk will be wearing red, but he pledges to make the move to green as soon as he gets to UNT permanently.

UNT also brought in new people as it pushes to increase its national prominence.

In May, Thomas McCoy, formerly of Montana State University, was brought on as the vice president for research and economic development. McCoy brings an aggressive plan to double the university’s research expenditures over the next five years and to bring in key students and faculty.

Former UNT Regent Michael Williams was announced as the next president of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth in July, and Ronald T. Brown became president of UNT Dallas that same month.

Dorothy Bland also began as the new dean of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism in June.

 

Demolition and construction

A portion of historic Fouts Field at UNT was demolished this summer, and in September the historic University House at TWU was demolished after encountering resistance from local and state historical agencies.

For UNT, the partial demolition of Fouts Field was one of many changes this year, as Scoular Hall was demolished to make room for the new University Union. Much of the campus was reconfigured and rerouted for the project, which began this fall and is expected to be completed in June 2015.

Construction is also underway at TWU for the new University House, which is expected to be completed by the end of May. The new house will accommodate the next president and chancellor of the university, and a search is underway to fill the position by May.

 

Business

Retail growth

Retail businesses continued to boom in Denton County.

The first phase of renovations at the Golden Triangle Mall neared completion this year and the landmark mall sign was torn down. There is a new food court with four restaurants and new stores have leased space in the building.

Past the renovated entrances and landscaping, the new interior features lounge chairs, charging stations for electronic devices as well as bright colors to make shopping more appealing.

Rayzor Ranch Marketplace also introduced several new stores this year, with more to open in 2014.

And Target opened a new food distribution center in March in Denton in a 360,000-square-foot building on Airport Road.

The center delivers more than 5,500 different food products to 235 Target stores in the region, and is the most automated distribution center yet for the company. The center currently employs about 140 people.

 

Law enforcement

Deadliest days in history

Denton County marked what is believed to be its deadliest period of time in history during the four-day Labor Day holiday, according to Troy Taylor, the county’s chief death investigator.

Drownings at Lewisville Lake, vehicle accidents and two homicides were just a handful of deadly cases seen between Aug. 30 and Sept. 2. That week, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner District’s Denton office had eight investigative cases — a number that hasn’t been seen in Taylor’s tenure with the county.

“This was by far the deadliest and busiest time period in the 10 years I have been over this office,” he said. “To my knowledge, Labor Day weekend was not only the busiest holiday weekend, but the busiest time ever in the county’s history.”

 

New police department

In an effort to meet the demands of a growing population in Denton County, the cities of Cross Roads and Krugerville joined forces to create the North East Police Department.

The cities had discussed plans to expand their resources by also joining forces with the city of Aubrey. Aubrey officials withdrew from the talks, however, after deciding to beef up the existing department.

 

Staff writers Jenna Duncan, Megan Gray, John D. Harden, Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Bj Lewis and Britney Tabor contributed to this report.


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