EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final story in a six-part 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 Record-Chronicle.
Shannon Flanagan remembers standing on the front porch of her two-story ranch house a decade ago, mesmerized by the primrose-covered prairies stretching for miles, unobstructed sunsets and the soothing melodies of wild birds perched in shade trees on her property only 7 miles west of downtown Denton.
Today, however, the open prairies surrounding her 8-acre horse ranch are succumbing to the plow of development. The melodies of wild birds have given way to the cacophony of cars, dump trucks, bulldozers and cement mixers rumbling across the congested two-lane road crossing the front of her property.
Since the city of Denton annexed Flanagan's ranchland in 2010, two sprawling housing developments have taken root directly across the street from her horse ranch. One of the developments adopted the name Saddlebrook Estates, fitting for a place that once was the exclusive domain of horse and cattle ranches.
Today, however, Masch Branch Road — the busy blacktop separating Flanagan's majestic horse ranch from the new housing developments across the street — serves as a dividing line between two clashing cultures that can't seem to coexist.
The city people who moved into the developments "don't understand the horses," says Flanagan. "They want to come up and touch them. But not all horses are nice."
Some of Flanagan's fellow ranchers in the western reaches of the city of Denton — fed up with the never-ending traffic congestion, noise, skyrocketing taxes and citified neighbors who don't appreciate their agrarian customs and way of life — already have sold out to developers and moved away.
Now, city planners are hoping many more ranchers and farmers on the outskirts of the city will put their properties up for sale in the years to come to make room for Denton's long-term growth. According to the Denton Plan 2030, the city's long-range growth and development plan, city planners project Denton's population will mushroom to 207,334 by 2030. That's about 94,000 more residents than today.
An aggressive annexation plan
The city has launched what it calls an "aggressive annexation" policy to accommodate the projected growth. Since 1999, Denton has annexed more than 20,000 acres of unincorporated land primarily used for agricultural purposes in preparation for developments.
Today, city planners boast Denton encompasses more than 34,000 acres of agricultural and undeveloped land that offers "growing room" for development within its 60,000-acre geographical area. "Within the present city limits is more than twice the land area needed for growth through 2030," according to the city's comprehensive plan.
Tommy Calvert, the president of the Denton County Farm Bureau, has looked at the city's long-term development and annexation plans and reached a grim conclusion: Denton's plan calls for sacrificing farm and ranchlands at the altar of development.
"I see a pretty dim future for agriculture in Denton County as a whole because [city planners] are going to end up taking most of the properties now in agriculture for other uses," he says. "So we'll become an urbanized county."
Calvert contends the city's aggressive annexation of agricultural land is the most serious threat facing ranchers and farmers operating within the city limits. It's tantamount to a death sentence, he says.
The threat posed by annexation to the already shrinking agriculture community in Denton explains why ranchers and farmers weren't included as "stakeholders" or "interested parties" in developing the city's comprehensive plan, according to Calvert, who raises 50 head of cattle on unincorporated land near Argyle that the city of Denton wants to annex.
He says the city staff "gets kind of defensive" when anyone from the agricultural community tries to talk to them about their problems with annexation, even though Denton's annexation policies are threatening their way of life.
When agricultural land is annexed, a rancher or farmer will see their property taxes surge immediately, Calvert says, and the city doesn't have a ceiling for how high taxes can go in the future. If the rancher or farmer can't pay the tax bill, he says they're left with few options other than to sell out.
A fairy-tale ranch threatened by development
Flanagan couldn't imagine putting a for-sale sign on what she considers her fairy-tale ranch, Silent Knight Stables. She cherishes the 24 English riding horses she raises, trains and boards.
"It was the realization of a lifelong dream," she says.
These days, though, Flanagan's dream is evaporating like the morning dew on her horse pastures after sunrise. Her stout shoulders sag recalling how her new urban neighbors across the street were terrified by her gentle giant of a dog — a great Pyrenees trained to protect her prized horses from predators. Frustrated by her neighbors' complaints and police cars showing up at her stables to pick up her great Pyrenees, Flanagan eventually had to part with her dog.
Flanagan's ranch is surrounded by electric fences to keep her horses from trying to break out. But now she's worried if some adolescents from Saddlebrook Estates or Eagle Chase scale her fence to mingle with her horses, the electric shock they'd suffer could trigger a lawsuit. "I don't want to deal with that," Flanagan says.
Keeps a pistol at her side
Before the growing horde of urbanites moved into Saddlebrook Estates and Eagle Chase, Flanagan used to keep her front door unlocked, a custom of ranchers in the Old West who kept their doors open for dog-tired cattlemen who needed a place to rest after a long trail drive. But that was before "the city folks" moved across the street. Now, when a stranger knocks on her door, they'll find it's locked. And if Flanagan opens the door, the stranger might see a pistol at her side.
As more and more urbanites move into her formerly rural area, Flanagan says she's becoming increasingly wary and suspicious. She says it's common these days to see strangers from across the street walking down her driveway, toward her house and her horses, day and night. She says most of the newcomers don't know anything about horses. Although their intentions aren't "malicious," she says horses can be spooked easily, even when they're not provoked.
But Flanagan's wariness toward the city folks across the street from her ranch doesn't begin to match her growing disdain for the city of Denton. Before her unincorporated ranchland was annexed in 2010, Flanagan's annual property tax bill was $4,198. Since then, her property taxes have climbed to $9,064 per year. In exchange for her high tax bill, Flanagan says she doesn't receive a any city service. No water. No sewage. No garbage pickup. No electricity. Nothing.
"The city provides no services, but I have to pay more taxes," Flanagan fumes.
A few years ago, the rancher was jolted in a way she never was by a horse when she opened her mailbox and found a $1,000 bill from the city of Denton to pay for stormwater runoff the city claimed contributes to neighborhood flooding. Flanagan disputed the claims and eventually reached a settlement with the city. But her dispute with Denton over paying for water runoff on her ranch was, for Flanagan, the last straw.
Trying to run a horse ranch in a city that doesn't really care about the struggles facing ranchers and farmers "is frustrating," Flanagan says. "Long term, we won't stay here because we'll just be surrounded by people."
'We have a lot to offer you'
To all the ranchers and farmers living in the still-rural outposts of the city who are contesting the city's annexation efforts, Kevin Roden had a message: "We have a lot to offer you, and you have a lot to offer us, and I don't think what's being asked is too burdensome." Roden served on the Denton City Council until recently, when the last of his three terms ended.
Wolfgang Skledar, who purchased his secluded 7.5-acre spread on the western fringes of Denton eight years ago, isn't buying Roden's pitch. He's convinced the city doesn't have anything to offer people like him who purchased land in unincorporated areas around the city — except a lot of headaches.
For six years now, Skledar has been fending off the city's efforts to annex his land. He's attended one public hearing after another, voicing his adamant opposition. He's also filed several "non-annexation agreements" to prevent the city from grabbing his plot of land along with the rest of the 1,500 acres surrounding him between Krum and Denton — an area officially known as Planned Annexation Area 2 South.
Born and raised in Austria, Skledar considers his tiny ranch his "American dream." He made his home headquarters for Skledar Enterprises, an electrical integration company he started in Austria. He heard stories that in Texas, city and state governments would grant great latitude to companies, leaving them generally unencumbered by red tape and regulations.
"I picked Texas because it's the freest state in the Union," Skledar says.
But after his land was annexed, Skledar learned a hard lesson: The city has no tolerance for businessmen who don't pay their taxes. In recent weeks, Skledar has been bombarded by letters from the city demanding the payment of back taxes on his business operations. If he had known Denton had the right to annex unincorporated property, Skledar says he never would have bought the land in the first place.
Living the life of a Texas rancher
Living outside the city limits, without a neighbor in sight, Skledar set out to create a lifestyle of a prototypical Texas rancher. He bought a bull and a donkey, began wearing cowboy boots and smoking Marlboros and purchased a Ford pickup. He spent his weekends doing what a lot of Texas ranchers like to do: hunting, fishing and drinking beer.
Skledar liked to walk around his property, toss feed to his bull and his donkey and gaze at the wide-open prairies around him. He felt a sense of freedom and independence that wasn't possible in Austria. For a time, his life was everything he wanted.
Then, a letter arrived in his mailbox from the city. It mentioned the word "annexation," a word he had never heard before. He looked it up in the dictionary and didn't like what it said. Never, ever, Skledar thought, could he have imagined the city of Denton could annex his ranch and all the land around him. Now they treat his land like it's "part of a neighborhood," he says.
Three years from now — in 2020 — Skledar will stand once again before the City Council to contest the annexation of his property. He'll fight on as long as he can, he says, knowing he can't win, knowing the city eventually will take his property along with the land belonging to all the other owners who are fighting with him. And once the city has control over the land, Skledar predicts they'll move as quickly as they can to have it turned it into a housing development.
"I get it," says Skledar. "People need housing. They need to live somewhere. But people also need to respect people's land."