Thursday, July 24, 2014

Low-income townhomes arriving in Sunnyvale after decades-long fight

Town Manager Sean Fox is among Sunnyvale’s newest faces, but not for long, as a whole new demographic will soon land on the western shore of Lake Ray Hubbard.

Sunnyvale’s decades-long battle to deny low-income housing ends as 96 townhomes are completed in the coming weeks. But as Fox is quickly learning, the residents’ dedication to retain a unique rural feel is unchanged.

“They know the size of community they want to be,” Fox said. “They don’t want to be the next booming city. They still want to maintain that town feeling.”

The Riverstone Trails townhomes, with 70 units set aside specifically for vouchers, will open in phases starting July 15 or possibly earlier. All will be finished by Sept. 30.

Fair-housing plaintiffs were unsure the homes would ever exist, as Sunnyvale had fought for decades and violated a 2005 court order. The cost of resistance was more than $2 million in legal fees. The town made realistic overtures in 2011, though, when it contracted with VCZ Development, which has done 20 such projects in Texas in the last five years.

“Everybody is on board with it,” Fox said. “A very nice facility.”

In 1988, when Dallas Tenants Association counselor and advocate Mary Dews filed the original suit to force Sunnyvale to provide low-income housing, Fox was fresh out of Navy officer school. He spent 24 years of active duty flying S-3B Viking and E-6B Mercury aircraft. He left the Navy in 2011 to become city manager of Pantego in Tarrant County and accepted the call from Sunnyvale last month.

Fox admits he knows nobody else who’s made the career jump from naval officer to city administration.

“I’m a servant-type leader. To me, public municipal government is where I wanted to be. It coincides,” he said.

Devotion to an ideal

Five days into the job, Fox got a live view of Sunnyvale’s devotion to a specific ideal.

Glazer Estates is a proposed 45-home subdivision on 83 acres. The proposal met every standard the town had on the books for more than two decades. Staff had recommended approval and so had the town’s plan commission. The quality of the homes would easily hold up in a town where values average $281,770.

“We’re here with what you said you want,” developer Christopher Jackson said, standing before the council. Landowners have a right to sell and, in this case, a solid legal position should the proposed sale be blocked.

But neighbors like the horses and the ponds currently on the property. Seventeen wrote letters opposing the project. And they came to Town Hall to testify.

“Most of us moved here for a certain quality of life,” said Evan Howard. “We’re destroying that right now. Are we going to develop every open space here?”

Drawn-out talks

The rural feel/character. Houses or horses. All that traffic. Fox got a front-row earful from Sunnyvale, where 5,000 residents occupy 16 square miles.

The council didn’t challenge the legality of what was proposed but wondered out loud if the vision for the land they’d put on the zoning plan in 1993 was still best. They tabled the item, charging the staff to see if a palatable compromise could be worked out.

In the weeks that followed, Jackson and city officials met daily. The developer came back to the council Monday with a reworked plan, the fifth the staff had seen. After 80 minutes of closed session to talk about the city taking on the pond area as a park and 60 more debating the issue in public, the parties decided they needed another month.

Bond election

Sunnyvale will probably call a bond election of about $20 million in November. Much of that may be pointed toward widening Collins Road, the major in-town north-south street. The town is preparing for the arrival of the next extension of State Highway 190, the Bush Turnpike, and has spent much effort debating what route works best.

There’s also talk of using that bond election to finance a link to Dallas Water Utilities, which operates a plant in Sunnyvale. The town is a North Texas Municipal Water District customer, like Garland, Rockwall, Rowlett and every other city on Lake Ray Hubbard — despite the proximity of the Dallas-owned lake.

A switch would be complex, and many questions remain to be answered, Fox said. And in Sunnyvale, there will be many with questions to answer. He promises to be available to talk to anyone concerned about the progress.

“There’s no doubt very slow growth, methodical,” Fox said. “But they do realize the town is growing.”