City leaders upset after commission targets TWU’s expansion plan
Some city officials say the Denton Historic Landmark Commission may have gone too far when it passed a resolution "strongly encouraging" Texas Woman's University to stop demolishing nearby homes as part of an expansion plan.
City leaders including Mayor Mark Burroughs and City Manager George Campbell said they worried the resolution would be viewed as an official statement of city policy - something they say is beyond the power of an advisory board.
The commission's chairwoman was surprised by the controversy, saying the resolution was "bland" and within the panel's charge of encouraging historical preservation.
Some homeowners near TWU are trying to win historic conservation district status for their neighborhoods - a distinction that would not bind the state university but could be used as a weapon in a public relations war.
The dust-up represents the latest in a string of conflicts between the City Council and its advisory boards, following public feuds with the airport and traffic safety boards in recent years. It also highlights a conundrum for city leaders who support neighborhood preservation but want to maintain a cordial relationship with TWU.
The university's land acquisition plan identifies neighborhoods along the campus' southeast and west borders as future expansion areas. TWU has bought and demolished about 40 homes in those areas but has not announced specific plans for the land.
The city's Historic Landmark Commission passed a resolution Jan. 9 asking the university to preserve homes remaining in the areas of Austin, Oakland and Sawyer streets and Texas Street, Bell Avenue and Mingo Road.
The loss of more properties would "diminish the distinctive character of central Denton and further threaten neighborhood integrity," according to the resolution.
Campbell alerted the council to the resolution at a work session Tuesday, saying he was reluctant to forward it to TWU officials without the council's input. The council met with TWU administrators in December and agreed to form working groups on topics of common interest, including university growth, but no other meetings have been held.
Based on the December meeting, Campbell said that he believed council members wanted to work with TWU but were reluctant to try to direct the university's policy decisions.
Several council members said they agreed with the resolution's goals but worried it could counteract their efforts to work collaboratively with the university.
Some, including Burroughs, also raised more general concerns about an advisory board independently passing resolutions on issues without council direction.
"I think that's far beyond the purposes of boards and commissions," Burroughs said. "Really, it would be a delegation of authority, in my opinion, for the council to allow policymaking on a board and commission level without input."
Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp agreed.
"I appreciate the work of all our boards and commissions … but the bottom line is we are accountable," Kamp said. "We're the ones who are elected, and we're the ones who set policy."
Reached by phone Wednesday, the historic commission's chairwoman said she was surprised that a "bland, feel-good" resolution had created such controversy.
"All it does is express our wishes," Karen DeVinney said. "We're toothless [in dealing with the university]. The city is also toothless, for that matter. We're just hoping that TWU cooperates."
Brenda Floyd, TWU's vice president of finance and administration, said she had not seen the resolution and declined to comment on it.
The university plans to continue working with the city on shared interests, which could include neighborhood preservation, Floyd said.
DeVinney said city staff members, including an attorney, were present when commissioners passed the resolution, and no one said it was beyond the commission's authority.
The commission previously passed a resolution in 2009 supporting the preservation of the former Fairhaven Retirement Home building designed by noted architect O'Neil Ford, she said.
DeVinney hopes the council lets the resolution go forward as a statement of the commission.
"I would hope that this would start a more respectful and open dialogue with TWU," she said.
Several council members said Tuesday that any communication with TWU should come through the council, but they were open to drafting their own resolution.
Council member Kevin Roden, who has held neighborhood meetings on the university's expansion, said the council needs to give the commission an outlet to weigh in on the issue.
"Resolution or not, this issue's not going to die soon," Roden said. "There's going to be continued frustrations in the community."
Council members expressed interest in meeting jointly with the commission later this year.
They also voiced support for a creating a procedure to let advisory boards independently suggest policies for the council to consider.
LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .