Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a series we call "Cropped Out." Steady population growth and conversion of rural farm and ranchland into residential, retail and commercial developments have created a clash of cultures on the road to urbanization in Denton County. Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism reported and wrote the stories. UNT professor George Getschow, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, edited the stories for exclusive publication in the Denton Record-Chronicle.
LITTLE ELM — Every afternoon about 3 or 4 p.m., Nancie and Clarence "Shorty" Brunk make their rounds on their 10-acre ranchette, Donkey Tonk Acres, in southwest Little Elm. Shorty, sporting a black pearl-snap shirt, a wool-lined jean vest and scruffy brown leather cowboy boots, tends to his hungry herd of Australian Lowline cattle. He throws feed in their troughs and hand-feeds sugar cubes to a chosen few swarming around him.
Nancie, her midlength gray-and-white hair hanging in a bob, dotes over five miniature Mediterranean donkeys — her "play toys" as she calls them. Sometimes she dresses them up in frilly hats and snaps their photos.
A few black cows lie in a corral, bellowing and swatting flies away with their tails. A rooster cock-a-doodle-doos. Shorty calls it one of the "neighbor chickens" for good reason; they belong to the rancher next door. The ranchers on Eldorado Parkway help each other out. A few of the Brunks' cows live on the next ranchette to help keep the grass short.
When they moved to their ranchette in 1993, the Brunks cleared 10 acres of mesquite trees by hand. They lived in a 10-by-20-foot tool shed with their youngest son while their two-story ranch house was being built. With three boys all grown up and six grandchildren scattered across Texas, Nancie and Shorty planned to spend the rest of their lives on that patch of land. "We're empty-nesters now," Nancie said.
But now, facing an incursion of commercial and residential development, they see a different future. For the sake of their sanity and the health of their livestock, the Brunks, now in their 60s, want to escape the upheaval enveloping Little Elm. They have put their property up for sale.
Nancie and Shorty used to exalt in the miles of open prairie surrounding their property. But over the past 15 years, the majestic landscape has been transformed into a maze of midrise apartments, housing developments and a Wal-Mart just down the road from their home.
"If the city hadn't developed around us, none of us would be ready to leave," Nancie says.
In fact, most of the Brunks' neighbors want to leave Little Elm as well. Douglas Peyton, the rancher who lives two houses down from the Brunks, has been trying to find someone to buy his land for the last four years.
"I bought my ranch when there was 813 people in this town," Peyton says. "We were told nothing's gonna change. Well, nothing but anything has changed. On my way here, there was a lady doing 60 mph down Eldorado Parkway that almost ran into me.
"Do you think I bought into that 20 years ago when I bought my ranch on a dead-end road? No, I didn't."
Coping with heavy traffic and plastic bags
When the Brunks moved to Little Elm, Eldorado Parkway, the two-lane asphalt road in front of their property, dead-ended about a mile west of their home. The only menace they had to contend with were bobcats and coyotes picking off their chickens and sheep one by one. But when Eldorado Parkway was widened to four lanes and connected to the Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge in 2009, the Brunk's pastoral way of life turned upside down.
Traffic on Eldorado Parkway spawned a massive increase in the amount of soft drink cups, cigarette butts and fast-food bags dumped on Donkey Tonk Acres. The most dangerous litter for livestock: plastic bags.
"If it's plastic, [the cows] can't digest it and it ties up their intestine and it won't pass through," Nancie says. "They can't spit anything out if it's in there. They have to keep swallowing until it disappears. It blocks the stomach or the intestinal tract, and they end up dying."
Two of the Brunks' cows died from ingesting plastic bags. A veterinarian rescued another cow that became sick after eating one.
Feeding their livestock has become a major headache for the Brunks. The couple used to be able to buy a year's worth of hay from a nearby seller and haul it back to their property. Now, with never-ending traffic congestion on Eldorado, it's hard to convince local suppliers to deliver hay to their ranchette. A car smashed into one of their hay deliverers' trucks when he was leaving their property.
"We've had people deliver hay here and say, 'Don't call me again. I'm not coming back to all this traffic,'" Nancie says.
Wanting out of Little Elm
The Brunks want out of Denton County. They want to head east to Wood County, about 90 miles west of the Texas-Louisiana border. They'll have to leave behind the church they attend every Sunday, their favorite pastor who "preaches straight from the Bible" and the friendships they hold dear. But the East Texas ranch they have in mind would give the Brunks something they've long coveted: enough space to expand to a 50-acre farm.
If only they could get out.
Donkey Tonk Acres has been for sale for three years. In that time, only two prospective house-hunters have visited the property. The couple is working with a real estate agent to divide their acreage and sell it in smaller lots. Initially, they wanted to sell the house and all 10 acres to one buyer to maximize profit. But now, desperate to move, they're prepared to strike a deal. They are planning to sell the house with 3 acres of land and hold on to the rest in hopes that they find someone else to sell it to eventually.
The Little Elm Town Council met Feb. 7 to discuss an ordinance that would rezone the ranchettes along Eldorado to single-family residences. Shorty and Peyton both spoke in favor of the rezoning at the public hearing. The ranchers were pushing for the development of four houses per acre. If the council passed that ordinance, Nancie and Shorty figured they could sell their land to a developer who would profit off the 40-house potential of their acreage.
But much to the ranchers' dismay, the council tabled the ordinance and came back with a proposal of one house per 5 acres. A few weeks later, the proposal was approved.
After the council meeting, Peyton stuck a sign in his front yard that proclaimed, "LITTLE ELM TOWN OFFICIALS USE THEIR POWER FOR PERSONAL FINANCIAL GAIN."
"When these folks moved into this area, they moved in with the intention of maintaining a 5- or 10-acre ranch site," says Little Elm Mayor David Hillock. "We're not doing anything to stop them from doing that. They're asking us to change the way our town feels to compromise the profit they make from their property."
Nancie and Shorty's land used to be all county. Due to rezoning, the town of Little Elm municipally annexed the front half of their property, forcing them to pay taxes to the county and the town. But even with the new zoning, the town has yet to offer any utilities to the farms along Eldorado Parkway. The sewer and water lines don't reach the Brunks' farm. They still use a septic tank and well water.
Hitched to the ranch for a while
Wedding rings glint on both of the Brunks' fingers. No flashy diamonds that could be a nuisance when working the ranch, just traditional silver bands. Shorty grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. Nancy grew up in a trailer park in Arizona. The two met on an aircraft training base when they were both in the Navy.
They got married in Arizona in 1968, and when Shorty retired from the Navy, the Brunks moved to Texas. He worked as an aircraft inspector at Dallas Love Field when they bought their ranchette. The land had been divided and sold to Texas veterans.
For now, Nancie and Shorty will continue doing what they always have. When his Australian Lowline are fully grown, Shorty will haul them to a custom slaughterhouse in Muenster for processing. Nancy will continue to christen her herd of donkeys with names like Pinkie, Ginger and Rosa and display their photos on Donkey Tonk Acres' website for sale to the highest bidder. In her spare time, she'll make quilts out of old button-ups she finds at local thrift shops.
They'll both watch reruns of old Western movies and attend services at Denton Bible Church every Sunday. "I love my Bible and I love my guns," Shorty says.
Getting out of Little Elm is a continuing prayer. But the Brunks have begun to accept a harsh reality. "We're going to be here for a while," Nancie said.
"When you're trying to do a ranch, you just can't live in the middle of a city."
Featured image: Nancie and Clarence "Shorty" Brunk outside of their ranch house in southwest Little Elm, where they have lived since 1993. The Brunks, both in their 60s, are looking to sell their home and property because of the growth of urban sprawl in and around the area.
For the DRC/Madison Wilson