Some Denton residents are concerned about development threatening the rural area surrounding the Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center in Denton, pictured above. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
Jan. 11, 2024
Across 2,900 acres of trees, fields and narrow roads, Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center in Denton draws bicyclists, horseback riders and those seeking a bit of solitude. It’s perhaps one of the quietest places in North Texas.
Some residents fear that might all be about to change.
In 2022, a property owner sold a chunk of land near Clear Creek to a developer who plans to turn the 826-acre plot into 1,800 apartments.
Plans from a previous developer, Taylor Morrison, who backed out of the development deal, for apartments down the road from Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center. Courtesy of Friends of Northeast Denton.
While Clear Creek itself will technically remain untouched, environmental experts and residents say the construction will create chaos across the ecologically sensitive area.
Others worry the development signals a shift in priorities in a growing Denton County. The historically rural area has gained over half a million people — a 123 percent increase — from 2000 to 2022, according to US Census data.
NORTHEAST DENTON AREA PLAN
City officials say they are taking all stakeholders’ concerns into account and have consistently talked with residents, landowners and environmental experts on the 20-year plan for the area — the Northeast Denton Area Plan.
Northeast Denton Area Plan. Courtesy of City of Denton.
The project’s manager, Angie Manglaris, said she hopes the plan — which will be voted on in the new year — will be a balance between preserving environmentally sensitive lands, respecting private property owners’ rights and keeping up with a growing population.
Across the state, unprecedented population growth has increasingly placed natural Texas landscapes at odds with economic development. In Denton County, one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas for the past two decades, Northeast Denton exemplifies the fight over the future of Texas’s landscape as towns grow into cities and ranches give way to apartments.
“We know growth is going to happen and we accept that,” said Denton-native Reid Ferring, who has PhDs in geology and archaeology. “But what we’re asking for is that the interests and needs of the community are considered alongside the financial goals of the developers.”
HISTORY OF AREA
Outside Anne Beckmann's house, "Save Hartlee Field Road” signs adorn the fence. Beckmann has lived on Hartlee Field Road for 23 years with her family. She worries development in the area will disrupt the tranquil environment she has loved all her life. Photo by Kaley Johnson.
On a narrow stretch of rural road in northeast Denton, nearly every house has a sign posted out front declaring “Save Hartlee Field Road.”
Hartlee Field Road lies at the center of the current Northeast Denton Area Plan controversy. The plan covers about 13 square miles and includes Hartlee Field, part of Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center and scattered rural neighborhoods.
Most of the area is made up of a unique ecosystem of floodplains, prairie grass and Cross Timbers woodland.
Randy Lincoln has been a caretaker at one Hartlee Field property for 11 years. He started his role with Don Carter (the former owner of the Dallas Mavericks) and, after Carter died in 2018, continued to work for the new owner.
Standing on a hill on the patch of land in mid-November, he gestured to the golden-brown fields and the faroff woodlands.
“This is one of the best views in Denton,” Lincoln said.
He pointed out another large house where Carter’s son, Don Carter Jr., constructed a 14,483 square-foot-home — complete with an indoor basketball court —on the other side of the plain. The lavish house and adjoining 826 acreage is where developers plan to plant their high-density housing community.
Ann Woodbridge, Anne Beckmann, Ned Woodbridge and Randy Lincoln looked over the low lying prairie off Hartlee Field Road in November 2023. The area is home to unique vegetation, a plethora of wildlife and sensitive floodplains. Photo by Kaley Johnson.
In August 2022, Dallas-based investment firm Orion and Nanban bought the plot of land from the Carters for $12 million, according to county records.
Residents called on the city to block development, but the city’s control over private property development is complicated.
As a state, Texas favors landowners’ rights, and the city cannot control who someone sells their land to. However, the city can limit development through zoning. Carter Ranch is zoned as rural residential, which does not permit high-density development. Developers can request a specific zoning classification and the city would evaluate the proposal based on the city’s own plans for future development.
According to the Denton Record Chronicle, Orion and Nanban CFO Shivesh Gowda told investors via a webinar that their development plans involve 1,300 to 1,800 homes. Gowda reportedly said the city was excited to work with the company on the project.
But city officials say they have not received any land development applications for Carter Ranch.
“It’s difficult to say we’re in agreement with a plan that we have not received,” Tina Firgens, Denton’s deputy director for development services, said.
Firgens said city planners meet with many developers on a regular basis and developers often “ “hear what they want to hear.”
“We are aware of the video having been put out there… but in the two years I’ve been here with have not received a land zone application for that property,” Firgens said. “It’s always interesting that one meeting with us can be taken out of context.”
Regardless, the idea of a “master-planned community” in the heart of an ecologically sensitive area has many residents concerned. The NCTCOG Regional Ecosystem Framework (“REF”) identified and rated the Northeast Denton area as one of the most environmentally important in North Texas.
Over his years taking care of the livestock and land, Lincoln said he has seen or seen evidence of hogs, armadillos, foxes, mountain lions, deer, possum, bobcats, coyotes and a menagerie of birds, including ravens and Bald Eagles.
Anne Beckmann, a member of Friends of Northeast Denton, says the quiet woodland of Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center is her favorite place in the world. She hopes the city of Denton will consider the area’s fragile ecosystem when creating a development plan for Northeast Denton. Photo by Kaley Johnson.
Last year, even a family of river otters were spotted in Clear Creek.
Construction on the Carter Ranch property would harm wildlife across the sensitive environment, Ferring said. The road construction alone would potentially add thousands of people to the rural road, requiring them to be altered significantly.
“There is a ton of different wildlife out here,” said 29-year-old Anne Beckmann, who has lived off Hartlee Field Road for 23 years. “If this area gets developed in accordance with the Northeast Denton Area plan, we will lose our dark skies we have at night. We'll have a lot more noise pollution, a lot more vehicle traffic, we'll have a lot more roadkill. It will just completely alter that serenity that we have out here.”
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Area includes the confluence of Clear Creek and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River and was originally established to protect and restore rare bottomland and upland prairie ecosystems. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
Much of the area is designated as a flood zone, which exacerbates the impact of any construction. Developers cannot build in a flood zone and instead would pack buildings, parking lots and roads onto higher ground.
The Carter Ranch is partially on this floodplain, but developers include part of that area in their density calculations, Ferring said.
“They can’t develop around the creek but they include it in density,” Ferring said. “So that’s inaccurate. So the concentration is higher than they say. The net effect is to have a serious impact on the areas along Hartlee Road.”
Ferring, who is a professor emeritus at University of North Texas, noted if the prairies and forests are replaced by pavement and buildings, the water runoff during rainfall would also harm the quality of water around the development. This is a problem, he said, because the Trinity River Basin is a primary water source for the region.
The current version of the Northeast Denton Area plan, which had not been voted on by City Council as of December 2023, is an effort to balance the needs of everyone in the community and the environment, Firgens said.
“In that one meeting, I realized how ignored the community has been in this process,” Beckmann said. “We all left that meeting disappointed. Very surprised and disappointed in the city council.”
The project began in January 2023 as a part of the citywide 2040 Plan “to respond to the development pressure that is being experienced in Denton,” according to the city website.
Over the course of 2023, Firgens, Manglaris and other city staff worked with a consultant team to gather information and talk with stakeholders. They sent out online surveys, created social media campaigns and held public community meetings. Many residents in the area passionately argued against development. Beckmann said she got involved in the Friends of Northeast Denton group after she attended a city meeting in August.
“In that one meeting, I realized how ignored the community has been in this process,” she said. “We all left that meeting disappointed. Very surprised and disappointed in the city council.”
City Council members, including the mayor, did not respond to Green Source DFW’s requests for comment.
At that Aug. 1 meeting, City Council discussed two developmental scenarios for the Northeast Denton Area and voted in favor of the more developmentally friendly of two. The Balancing Act’s stated goal is to preserve the rural character of Northeast Denton through low density housing in the center and high density housing on the edges.
Ann Woodbridge has lived on Hartlee Field Road for eight years. She and her husband are among a group of residents who hope the Northeast Denton area could be turned into a state park to protect it from development. Photo by Kaley Johnson.
Many residents, including Ned and Ann Woodbridge, are critical of the Balancing Act. The couple have lived on Hartlee Field Road for eight years and have fallen in love with the area’s unique ecology. The Woodbridges are part of the North Denton Neighbors Association, which proposed its own plan for the area to the city.
Dubbed the Small Area Plan, the 43-page report describes in detail the area’s history, from the fossils of mammoths and saber tooth cats buried under the surface to the old airfield in Hartlee Field, where pilots trained during World War II.
Pilots trained at Hartlee Field Air Force Base during World War II. Courtesy of Denton Public Library.
The Small Area Plan emphasizes the need to preserve Northeast Denton as a natural resource for present visitors and future generations, Ned Woodridge said. Some residents are also hoping to turn the area into a state park. Ned Woodridge said they have been in touch with the office of Sen. Tan Parker, *who authored a 2023 bill that allotted $1 billion to expand Texas’ state parks system.
“A wave of development is breaking over all of North Texas,” Ned Woodridge said. “Lands are getting gobbled up as fast as they can.”
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