FEUDS GUNFIGHT AT THE CIRCLE T RANCH
When Ross Perot Jr. set out to develop one of the last big ranches in the region, be ran into a roadblock: Scott Bradley.
WEIGHING IN ON ONE SIDE is Ross Perot Jr., the son of the multibillion-aire. a major Dallas-Fort Worth area developer. On the other is Scott Bradley, mayor of the town of West-lake, population 250. Perot, 38, with a battery of assistants and attorneys, is a man used to getting his way. Bradley, 59, self-righteously determined, is a sophisticated lawyer himself, with a media-savvy style.
When these two squared off earlier this year over development plans for Perot’s Circle T Ranch, the result was a head-banger that broke apart the tiny town of Westlake. The battle carried into the courts, with residents left wondering who was their mayor, what land remained within the city limits, and where the money to pay for all the lawyers would come from. At stake were Perot’s plans to transform his 2,500-acre ranch north of Fort Worth and northwest of DFW Airport into a Texas-themed town and regional shopping mall, office campus, up to three golf-course communities, and perhaps 60 acres of apartments. The land-gently rolling green hills dotted with stock ponds and trees-is near Perot’s Alliance Airport, in one of the last large areas of Dallas/Fort Worth still open for development.
In a machine-gun series of events this spring, Westlake’s outgoing aldermen fired Mayor Bradley four days before the town’s May 3 election. Then, the day before the balloting that would cost them their majority, they gave the town a parting gift by literally dividing it-voting to cleave the Circle T and other huge chunks of land from the town. Newly elected aldermen quickly brought Bradley back, creating more confusion. Lawsuits resulted in Tarrant, Denton, and Dallas counties as other towns fought over what had been Westlake, and Perot weighed in with a lawsuit of his own.
The battle made national headlines- with Perot typically portrayed as a Goliath stomping through a Texas hamlet. He was clearly trying to bully the small town. But his opponents are not just overall-wearing farmers and sweet country wives. One resident is former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and a nearby property owner is Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.
Bradley, more importantly, is no May-berry-style mayor. Described as brilliant and resourceful by fellow lawyers, he is far from a neophyte when it comes to confrontation. A handsome preacher’s son with the solicitous expression of a basset hound, Bradley has an open and confiding manner. But those who have dealt with him say he is tenacious in a fight.
In the late ’80s, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took on Bradley after settling for at least $10 million from the Dallas law firm Jenkens & Gilchrist in an S&L-related suit. The feds may have extracted blood from the firm where he once practiced, but Bradley fought back and collected $250,000. "That’s the reason that the most incredible crap the Perots throw at me-it doesn’t matter," says Bradley, as patient as a spider. "Because I’ve been through all that."
Now Bradley, backed by Westlake’s $2 million bank account, vows to fight till the funds run dry. By mid-August, Westlake had spent almost $550,000 on attorneys, more than a fourth of that going to the Fort Worth law firm where Bradley works of counsel, Cantey & Hanger.
Westlake was founded in 1956 when three large landowners got together and called themselves a town. Their goal for the new government was no government. Westlake still has no police or fire department, no city water, no schools-not even sewer lines. Residents rely on septic tanks and wells or water pumped in from neighboring villages. With few residents, aldermen usually ran unopposed, deciding among themselves who their replacements would be. They held meetings in an alderman’s home. The mayor’s wife served as the unpaid town secretary.
By 1993. when Perot bought the Circle T, Westlake had become a tranquil enclave surrounded by aggressive urban growth, 35 minutes from downtown Dallas, less than 30 from Fort Worth. While some of the old-timers had bought here with an eye toward paying marginal taxes then reselling later at a profit, many newcomers planned to make Westlake their home. "We have our heart and our soul in out-property," says Bradshaw’s wife. Charla, a new alderman elected in May. Her husband helped clear the trees from their 13-acre lot backing up to the Circle T. The couple raises quarterhorses and Simmen-tal cattle on 400 acres leased from Perot.
Three other developers had looked at the Circle T after it went on the market in Nelson Bunker Hunt’s bankruptcy. They decided to pass rather than deal with the ambitious zoning Westlake hurriedly approved before the sale. In 1990, Hunt’s bankruptcy trustee sued the town, claiming it was chasing buyers away. But Perot thought he could take on this dorp without a single full-time employee. After all. Fort Worth, a metropolis of 500,000. had bent to his will on the 1980s Alliance development. He’d won federal money to build the runway, state money to add roads, and city money to pay for millions in road, sewage, and drainage costs.
Perot bought his first 2,000 acres, paying an amount variously reported at $16 million to S23 million. Another 500 acres were added for $10 million last year. Discussions between the town and Perot started out friendly. "He said it was one of the best he’d ever seen," Bradley recalls Perot saying of the town’s comprehensive plan. That was before Perot revealed his own plan for the sprawling Circle T. The June 1996 unveiling at town hall was upstaged by newspaper articles in which city officials warned that the plan could result in more than 20,000 apartments and up to S0,000 residents on the ranch. About 300 people-some not even from Westlake- crowded in to hear Perot’s underlings defend this. Six residents spoke. All were opposed. One of them was Terry Bradshaw. who told the Perotites, "We like the Circle T the way it is."
By that fall. Perot was calling Westlake "a dysfunctional town." Westlake had declared a moratorium on submitting development plans and everyone involved was suspicious of everyone else.
Perot, as impatient as his more gregarious, jug-eared dad, was not amused. Taller and with blond. Ken-doll good looks, Perot Jr. appears more taciturn than Perot Sr. But he has spent a lifetime get-ling what he wants and unlike his father, feels no need to waste time on folksy humor and salesman’s charm. One can only imagine what he thought as planners for a town of 250 told him he should set aside part of the land he paid millions for as public hiking/biking trails and green buffer zones. Westlake even wanted a say on the shrubs and color of concrete used.
By last February, Perot and the town were slugging it oui in mediation. On February 12-their first session-Perot sat across a conference table from Bradley in Dallas* Texas Commerce Bank building. Perot was so angry a! Bradley his eyebrow started to twitch. A member of Perot’s mediation team. Texas Department of Public Safety Chairman Jim Francis, jumped to his feet, shouting curses and pointing a finger at the mayor. "’He called me an obstructionist and said 1 had no good faith about me." Bradley recalls. Francis insists he did not stand up or point.
At first, the aldermen and their mayor presented a united front against Perot. His plans could bring congestion and severe overdevelopment, they argued. But his most galling proposals concerned who would be in control and where the money to build infrastructure like water lines should come from. Perot wanted to leave the Circle T’s zoning flexible, so he could modify it as needed. He also asked the town to dedicate perhaps 70 percent of any city sales tax collected from Circle T businesses to cover his development costs.
Perot may have never expected to get all he asked for, "He’s just a hard-ass." Nunn says of Perot’s negotiating style. "He’s going to ask for everything he can get and dig his heels in until he gets some of it." (That’s a point Dallas might want to keep in mind as it dickers with Perot on a proposed downtown sports arena.)
One of Perot’s strategies is to divide and conquer, and it did not lake long for him to do this in Westlake. The aldermen had never been 100 percent behind Bradley. The polished lawyer with the soft West Texas twang came to town in 1977 and immediately started talking about adding things like a school system-this in a town founded to escape taxes. After becoming mayor, he began spending tens of thousands a year on fancy legal, engineering, and consulting fees. The old mayor had made due with his wife as an unpaid town secretary. "Bradley loves that stuff. He just loves to wear his little coat and tie," says former alderman AI Oien. a man given to appearing at alderman meetings in overalls and a white T-shirt.
As the mediation progressed, Bradley began getting reports that Perot’s lieutenants were meeting with selected aldermen without him. Friends told of spotting them huddled over breakfast at the local Marriott, part of the Solana office campus that once formed the heart of Westlake. At one point. Bradley testified in a deposition, a source warned that Perot had a plan "for dealing with Westlake," and that a scheme was in place "that would in effect destroy me." (After the Westlake issue exploded. Perot’s representatives were more than happy to provide information about the FD1C lawsuit against Bradley and his filing for bankruptcy.)
Oien, for one, began to sympathize with Perot, ’i don’t think anyone would expect a landowner who spent S1 ? million or S16 million to maintain the Circle T as a ranch or a pasture," he says of Perot.
But Oien also says Perot was beginning to back away from some of his demands. It was Bradley, he says, who refused to budge. "Scott has been tenacious in protecting Westlake and his particular propcity," says David R. Snodgrass, a Dallas lawyer who had faced off against Bradley in his bankruptcy.
If Bradley was being hardheaded, it was because he had a lot at stake. His property is right next to the Circle T and apt to be hurt-or helped-by whatever happens there. Before becoming mayor in 1994, Bradley had volunteered to chair the town’s planning and zoning commission, where he could keep an eye on develop ment. There were also Bradley’s dreams for Westlake and his power at city hall.
Being mayor of a town of 250 might not sound like much. Bui Bradley had turned the non-paying job into a revenue source. Under his stewardship, the tiny town had gotten into high finance. Taking advantage of its tax-exempt status, Westlake had set up a corporation to buy college dormitories, paying owners in lax-free interest with money earned operating the dorms. The town kept about $100,000 a year to use for local scholarships. And Bradley, who is general counsel to the corporation, collected $31,000 for his law firm. Texas law allows communities to use their tax-exempt status to set up such corporations, but a spokesman at the Texas attorney gen-eral’s office says he knows of no other town that has ever done what Westlake has done. And certainly no other mayor has taken personal advantage of it the way Bradley has.
Bradley was not the only one with a vested interest in development at the Circle T. Because the ranch spread across more than half the town’s acres, many Westlake residents had adjoining property. The Bradshaws had their lease and spacious ranch-style home next door. William Greenwood, the current Westlake planning and zoning commission chair, is building a 15,000-square-foot country French home on four acres that abut the Circle T. The view from the pool and Jacuzzi out back is of fields at the ranch.
Under Perot’s plans, it could become the backside of other houses. "It would definitely detract from what I thought was going to be back there," says Greenwood. "We didn’t want a lot of acreage. We wanted a buffer zone."
Perot’s big break may have come because Bradley outsmarted himself. In 1995, Bradley put an ordinance before the aldermen to adopt a map with the town’s boundaries. Bradley knew that even if some of the land within those boundaries hadn’t officially been annexed, it would become part of Westlake if the map went unchallenged for two years. There were concerns at the time about plans to build a mobile telephone broadcasting tower in the area. The new map closed gaps where land was still outside the town. The matter was handled quietly, Bradley says, so residents wouldn’t realize they had never technically been annexed and therefore could lease their land for a tower. Bradley also used this opportunity to bring in a subdivision of middle-class homes built around a private airstrip.
Whether some or all of the former aldermen knew their vote to approve the map would in effect annex the Stagecoach Hills subdivision became one of the key controversies of Westlake. Bradley argues they all knew.
But Oien insists the alderman were clueless. "We didn’t want to annex them because they’re 80 votes and 80 votes could control the town," he says. Not only were the professionals in Stagecoach Hills likely to support Bradley’s views, they would almost certainly oppose massive development at the Circle T since that would raise questions about continued use of their private airstrip.
If the aldermen didn’t know, they discovered their mistake last February when a Stagecoach Hills resident named Dun Redding registered to run for alderman in the May 3 election.
The aldermen quickly called an emergency meeting March 5 to change the map to delete Stagecoach Hills. Bradley, as mayor, vetoed their action. And the town where votes had been unanimous immediately disintegrated into a place where crowds filled city hall to watch the brawl. Bradley called in nearby Trophy Club police to the March 24 meeting alter an alderman got into a shouting match with angry residents. A battle soon raged over whether people from Stagecoach Hills should vote in-let alone run for office in-the upcoming election. At one point, the aldermen took the unusual legal tack of getting a probate judge, someone who more commonly handles wills, to rule on how the votes should be collected.
On April 15. with the city fathers at odds. Perot invited a handful of Westlake officials and residents to his ranch house on the Circle T to sell them on his plans. The gathering grew tense as Bradley challenged a Perot employee’s rundown on what had been decided in mediation, then accused Perot of interfering with the upcoming election. Perot responded by calling Bradley unreasonable, citing as proof litigation pending against the town. "You just can’t get along with anybody." Perot told Bradley.
After the argument with Perot at the Circle T, things went downhill for Bradley. An April 26 article critical of Perot’s plans, quoting Bradley among others, appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Angry. Perot responded by ending negotiations. On April 29. the aldermen voted to oust their mayor. Four of the town’s five aldermen ruled Bradley guilty of incompetence and misconduct and removed him after a rancorous hearing at which an attorney for Bradley was refused the right to ask many of his questions.
Pete Geren. the former U.S. Congressman who now flacks for Perot, insists Perot had nothing to do with Bradley’s removal. Says Perot: "We do not trample towns. What happened there was a little bit of a family feud. We got caught in the middle. This is not a David and Goliath deal."
Perhaps the developer was just taking advantage of a light among his enemies. But Perot clearly did instigate the property exodus from Westlake that began May 2. An alderman testified in a deposition thai a Perot official went with him to talk to another property owner about disan-nexing. Fort Worth’s assistant city manager also testified that Dale White, the man the old aldermen appointed mayor, appeared at city hall with a Perot official the day before the disannexations to discuss bringing property into Fort Worth’s jurisdiction.
Perot was joined in the flight from Westlake by 11 other property owners. The Solana office complex, which provided 99 percent of Westlake "s annual revenues went to nearby Southlake. Friendly Fort Worth staked a claim on the Circle T for its future expansion. Westlake shrank from 4,517 acres to 1,414. and perhaps 160 residents.
Bradley supporters immediately suspected the old aldermen of siding with Perot because they hoped to sell their land for a windfall. Allegations of Perot influence have surfaced in Fort Worth’s city government, but have never been proven. Oien says he knows of no deals-although he would be happy to sell to Perot or anyone else who offered his $45,000-an-acre asking price. Oien calls the breakup of Westlake. which he assisted, tragic. "’For the 32 years I’ve lived here, it’s been really a comfortable little town. But when your largest landowners cannot accomplish peace and tranquillity with the powers that be, you have very few options."
Ironically, in Westlake, the only city official known to have sold land to Perot is Bradley himself. The mayor got just over $ I million for 30 of his 130 acres in January 19%. If this was meant to soften Bradley’s resistance, it didn’t.
Bradley, furious at being ousted, sued the old aldermen who had removed him. Westlake sued the towns that annexed its land. And Perot’s Hillwood Development Corp. sued Bradley and the new aldermen for more than $40 million for depriving Hillwood of its rights as a landowner and for disparaging its reputation. Meanwhile. Westlake. with its bank accounts temporarily frozen, hied for bankruptcy June 9-although the bankruptcy was dismissed after the funds were thawed.
Lawyers predict it will take years to unravel the litigation. In August, Tarrant County District Judge Bob McGrath voided Bradley’s impeachment. The replacement mayor tiled notice of appeal three days later. Then, Judge McGrath abruptly recused himself from the case later that same month, without giving a reason.
Whether Bradley is really mayor, whether Stagecoach Hills residents really should have voted in the last election, and whether the land spun off by the outgoing aldermen is truly gone are questions that will be decided in court-unless the two sides settle. Westlake continues to exist in fragmented form. Charts Bradshaw worries about its survival. "To me a town can’t lose 99 percent of its revenues and 90 percent of its land mass and survive."
Dale White, 75, was offered the job of mayor when a neighboring alderman leaned across his fence. Bradley’s attorney asked White, a Westlake resident for 35 years and mayor for 18 before Bradley’s rein, whether he hadn’t fell some duty to protect the town rather than presiding over its dismemberment. "We made the town what it was," White responded in his deposition. "The people in the town...have changed. So I had no feelings like you’re saying. No way."
Bradley usually knows how far he can push and goes no further, says Snodgrass, the fellow lawyer. In this case, "He may have underestimated his adversary."
Bradley himself was once a developer. In 1985, he took out a loan for $5.4 million to buy and develop 200 Denton County acres into an upscale subdivision. Only a road separates the site from Perot’s Alliance development. But Bradley got no sales or property tax rebates. The government did not put in water or sewage. Bradley and his project wound up bankrupt. "I didn’t get any help from anybody, which is probably why 1 went broke," Bradley says. To Perot, the site is just an eyesore he avoids flying over when taking potential tenants on helicopter rides.
Regardless of what the citizens of Westlake want, it’s doubtful Perot’s land will meet the same fate. Bradley may have determination. But Perot has that and more. About $3.3 billion more.