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North Texas' Sprawl Sprang From Pro-Growth Policies: Part One

North Texas urban sprawl is unprecedented and chaotic. There are better ways to control expansion.
North Texas urban sprawl is su[ercjarged and chaotic eith a high cost on communities. Photo by Louis DeLuca.

Published February 4, 2012 By THOEDORE KIM and OTHERS


New streets and street signs are in place ahead of homes that are soon to follow and cover the prairie in the Williamsburg subdivision in Fate. Photo by Louis DeLuca.

Jessica Thompson (right) and Ashley Crews go for a morning jog in the Woodcreek subdivision in Fate, where new houses are springing up. Census data showed the Rockwall County city grew at the fastest rate of any in the state in the last decade, with its population rising from 497 in 2000 to 6,357 in 2010. Photo by Louis DeLuca.

A choir made up of Frito-Lay employees performed during an event honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at company headquarters in Plano's Legacy Business Park. In 1985, Frito-Lay joined Electronic Data Systems at Legacy, which today has more than 10 million square feet of corporate and regional headquarters. Photo by Louis DeLuca.

Diane Miller puts out hay for her cattle on her ranch in Melissa. The fourth-generation cattle rancher's property has become a rural island surrounded by suburban development. “You used to be able to tell the difference between McKinney, Allen, Plano, Richardson, Dallas. There was cropland between each one,” she says. "It's all covered up in concrete now.” Photo by Louis DeLuca.


Open land beckons in the distance as a balloon advertises an open house in the Saddle Creek Estates development in Prosper. Photo by Louis DeLuca.


At current growth rates, the North Texas suburbs will reach the Red River someday.

Cheap land, good schools and other strengths have fueled an era of suburban development in North Texas, spurring unprecedented job growth, prosperity and a high quality of life.

But the potent mix of developer-friendly policies, good highways and open terrain has made North Texas — and Collin County, in particular — a supercharged showcase for sprawl.

The pro-growth culture is so strong that planners foresee a day when development reaches out 100 miles from Dallas. Yet given the long-term costs behind such a layout, some community leaders believe that unchecked growth is unsustainable.

Commute times are rising. Air quality has declined. Water supplies are strained. And as subdivisions continue to sprout up on the Texas prairie, older communities closer to downtown Dallas have struggled to turn around aging neighborhoods and declining school enrollments and replace outmoded infrastructure.

Some in North Texas have already begun to approach growth more thoughtfully. Of course, no community has all the answers. And curbing this region’s relentless outward push could prove particularly hard, since Texas — its laws, culture and residents — all point the same way: outward.

“Dallas-Fort Worth is rapidly maturing. Its costs are growing,” said Bill Sproull, president and chief executive officer of the Richardson Economic Development Partnership. “These are the natural consequences of suburban growth. I don’t think it’s sustainable if all we have is just unbridled sprawl.”

Beginnings of Boom

Suburban growth took off after World War II as young families, aided by the passage of the GI Bill and construction of the interstate highway system, pursued homeownership.

The suburbs stretching from Interstate 635 provide a window into North Texas’ six decades. The turbines that once powered Richardson’s rise have since moved northward to Plano, Allen, Frisco, McKinney and, more recently, Prosper, Celina and the Grayson County line.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has more people, about 6.5 million, than all of Texas did during World War II. More than half of that total now live beyond the city limits of Dallas and Fort Worth.

And the region is slated to almost double in population between 2000 and 2030, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Most of that growth has been on the edges. The region now measures roughly three times the size of Rhode Island.

Collin County, the nation’s fastest-growing from 2000 to 2007, is the epicenter. The county’s population has tripled in size since 1990 and is now comparable to that of San Francisco or Detroit. Frisco’s population, which was a mere 6,000 in 1990, stands at about 120,000.

The search for good schools, cheaper housing, more space and easy road access has driven the migration. The consolidation of smaller suburban school districts after World War II helped propel the surge.

Sherie Hammett, a mother of three who lives in a large Plano home, is one of many North Texans attracted to cozy suburbia for those reasons.

She said she sometimes drives up to 100 miles a day running errands. She keeps clean clothes and a small refrigerator stocked with water in the back of her Chevy Suburban.

“It’s the quality of life,” Hammett said. “It’s the safety of knowing your kids can be out front. You get a little bit of everything up here: The schools are good, you can get the space and still have money for others things.”

Yet perhaps more than any other factor, the rise of big job centers amplified the pace and scale of development here.

Fateful Call

One might say Collin County’s current spurt began with a phone call back in 1981.

That’s when Ross Perot, founder of data systems giant EDS, called Robbie Robinson to design a 2,700-acre minicity on the region’s northern outskirts.

Looking to relocate his growing Dallas company, Perot surveyed his employees and found that many of them lived north of Interstate 635, attracted by open space and good schools.

So he began planning a mega-campus in rural Plano called Legacy Business Park that would include space for a new EDS headquarters and other corporations, as well as places to live and shop.

Robinson, then a naval engineer who helped build military bases, recalls sizing up his new boss carefully.

"He had the resources to do whatever it was he wanted to do,” said Robinson, who is now 72 and lives in Plano. “To build a city from scratch was just an incredible opportunity. It was just cow fields at the time.”

Little did Robinson and his boss think Legacy might jump-start an entirely new ring of suburbs. Combined, Legacy and Richardson’s nearby telecommunications corridor have almost as much office space as nine Empire State Buildings and are home to about 100,000 workers.

Those corridors have made it possible for residents to live far beyond urban Dallas, without long commutes to downtown. And they have spurred new clusters of employment even farther out, such as Frisco’s 162-acre Hall Financial Park, which opened in 1998 north of Legacy.

A commute from a subdivision in Prosper to downtown Dallas takes about 45 minutes without traffic. The drive from Prosper to Frisco is about 10 minutes.

“These things have built upon themselves,” said Sproull, the Richardson economic development chief. “Allen and McKinney could not have had the tech presence they have now without Richardson. Frisco would not be where it is without Plano.”

Yet even meticulously planned centers such as Legacy — in which engineers discussed the angle at which Legacy Drive approaches Perot’s company — spring up organically and somewhat haphazardly. The resulting growth — subdivisions, retail centers and roads — does the same.

Richardson reached new heights after telecom firm MCI moved there in the late 1970s to be closer to supplier Rockwell Collins. Perot also hatched his plan primarily out of self-interest: Suburban land was cheap and plentiful, while his employees would have short commutes.

Those and other employment milestones, including the creation of another massive suburban job center at Las Colinas in Irving, pointed Dallas-Fort Worth’s explosion to the north.

Relentless Push

Cities, meanwhile, are encouraged to expand their tax base regardless of the costs, often making growth difficult to manage.

Because property tax revenue is the lifeblood of local communities, cities are desperate to raise new cash through development. It is often the only option, as many Texas voters are averse to tax-rate increases.

“Anyone who supports an increase in taxes is not a very good person and should not be re-elected,” joked Michael Morris, transportation director for the Council of Governments. “So cities have to get their revenue from more development. … It’s hard for them to turn down any type of development.”

Plano’s tax base has leveled off in recent years. So leaders have funneled millions in grants and tax abatements annually to encourage businesses to relocate, expand or just stay put. Collin County commissioners last year talked about granting tax breaks to almost every new business that opens its doors, an unprecedented measure. The county eventually settled on a scaled-down abatement.

Counting on big growth to materialize, rural Prosper in 2008 approved a school bond package totaling $710 million. Planners in tiny Celina, population 6,000, have already crafted a blueprint of thoroughfares that assumes the city will one day house a population rivaling Salt Lake City’s 200,000.

“Texas has always been a very strong property rights and pro-growth state,” said Dave Gattis, historian for the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association. “It’s growth at any cost.”

Texas zoning laws have seen few changes since the 1920s, when a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Euclid vs. Ambler, laid the foundations for modern zoning practices.

Since then, most Texas cities have adopted rules that guide everything from setbacks and landscaping to the number of parking spaces required. Many also have drafted informal long-term visions for their communities.

Limited Preservation Tools

But cities have few tools to encourage preservation and control where development occurs. For instance, communities in other states can halt development so that it does not outpace classroom space, and police and fire protection. State law makes it difficult for Texas cities to pursue such policies.

Areas beyond the city limits are even less subject to scrutiny or long-term planning. Texas law makes it relatively easy to set up utility districts that allow developers to build in unincorporated areas with little, if any, zoning or oversight.

In fact, builders often pursue state legislation to accelerate the process of setting up these individual developments, which are administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and typically take up to two years to process.

Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes says such districts — known in zoning-speak as MUDs, or municipal utility districts — are the originators of much of the uncontrolled development on the suburban edges.

“In a short amount of time, you can virtually have a city crop up in an unincorporated district. And the developer is calling all the shots,” Jaynes said.

In many ways, the loose regulations complement this state’s long-standing culture of self-rule. Since the days of Sam Houston, Texas landowners have built as they have seen fit.

“It’s quintessentially American, but particularly Texan,” said Gregory Ingram, president of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy of Cambridge, Mass., who has studied the state’s growth patterns. “This rugged individualist ethos that ‘it’s my land and I will do what I want. It’s my God-given right.’”

Benefits and Costs

The flip side is the perpetuation of a system that, from top to bottom, not only enables sprawl but encourages it.

“If there were no regulations at all, then people would be moving as far away as possible — assuming they could get public services,” said Gattis, who also serves as deputy city manager for Benbrook, a Fort Worth suburb. “There would be no protection of open space, no density. It would all be sprawl.”

Diane Miller, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Melissa, believes that notion. She has watched the suburbs literally surround her 500 acres.

“You used to be able to tell the difference between McKinney, Allen, Plano, Richardson, Dallas. There was cropland between each one,” she said. “It’s all covered up in concrete now.”

The growth has brought benefits such as improved roads, a new library in Melissa and better schools. But Miller contends the cost is high. Utility lines and easements dot her ranch, sowing land she cannot use and water and sewer service she cannot access.

“I try to remember that my ancestors came here for a better life. That’s all these new people are trying to do,” she said. “But there’s not a great deal of plus for me.”

Staff writers Jessica Meyers, Emily Fox and Michael E. Young contributed to this report.

ABOUT THE SERIES: Suburban Growth: The Cycle of the Sprawl

Last summer, a Dallas Morning News team of editors and reporters began scrutinizing the North Texas growth wave. The team convened a roundtable of public officials, business leaders, planners and educators to discuss sprawl and its ramifications. Reporters interviewed dozens of experts and traveled from Plano to North Las Vegas, Nev., to Portland, Ore., to explore suburban growth, its causes and downsides.

This three-part series — reported by Theodore Kim, Jessica Meyers and Michael E. Young and edited by Eric Nelson — explores these forces, the consequences and what the region can do to foster better growth. Other key contributors include Emily Fox, who aided our reporting and coordinated this package’s graphics; photographer Louis DeLuca, photo editor Michael Hamtil and graphic artist Tom Setzer; and former staff members Clay Zeigler, Ian McCann and Arnessa Garrett, who helped conceive the project.


The basic ingredients for growth can be found in any suburb: open space, decent schools, access to work. Yet in North Texas, and particularly Collin County, those forces are amplified. We decided to take a closer look at the forces causing supercharged growth, the high cost of sprawl on communities and ways to better control expansion.

TODAY: No End in Sight
MONDAY: Sprawl at What Cost?
TUESDAY: Controlling the Tide

About the author

Staff writers Ms. Meyers, Ms. Fox and Mr. Young contributed to a report on urban sprawl in Dallas, Texas.

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