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Inside the Legal Battle for Plano’s Future

Plano's comprehensive plan won national awards. It also sparked a lawsuit that could affect dense, urban development across the state.
By Peter Simek |
Trevor Paulhus

Beth Carruth and her husband were living in Farmers Branch in 1999 with their two adopted children when they finished an extensive renovation of their house, what Carruth describes as her “dream home.” But their children were not adjusting well to the public schools. Ultimately, the couple decided that their children’s education was more important than the perfect house. So they moved to Plano.

It didn’t take long for her to notice the city’s growing pains. “The elementary school is bursting,” she says. “They didn’t have a cafeteria, and the kids had to eat lunch at their desks every day. The classrooms were so small, they could never have had a fat teacher.”

By the 2010s, Plano’s city government realized what was happening. Population growth had hit a plateau and the city was growing older. A mere 128,000 residents in 1990 had swelled to 260,000 in 2010, but estimates saw that growth leveling out in the coming decades, at around 300,000. The median age of Plano residents in 1980 was 27.4 years old. By 2010, it was 37.2 years old. Projections put the 2030 median age at 44.5. And the city has become far more diverse. In 1990, Plano was more than 80 percent white. Today, 43 percent of Plano residents are non-Caucasian, and one in four Plano residents was born outside the United States.

“The reality is Plano has changed already,” says Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, whose own story—Haitian-born, raised in New York, relocated to Plano in 1994—reflects the changing character of the city. “We are no longer a suburb. We are our own city. The idea that we are a 45-year-old family of two with a minivan taking kids to soccer games is simply not the case.”

In 2013, the city set out to update its 27-year-old comprehensive plan so as to accommodate this growth and change. The result was the Plano Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, a forward-thinking policy document that re-imagines the ur-suburb as an emerging city. The plan protects some single-family neighborhoods, but it also looks to zones like transit corridors and four-corner retail strip centers as opportunities for denser, urban-style growth. Looking to the success of the Legacy development, the Plano Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan envisioned a suburban community punctuated with pockets of urban life, denser neighborhoods of mixed-use developments.

The plan won national awards and was praised for its “highly accessible and inclusive” approach to drawing public engagement in its creation. But Beth Carruth was not happy. She attended several of the public input workshops, and she says most of the people she spoke with didn’t want any more high-density development. And yet that’s exactly what the Plano Tomorrow plan encourages.

Carruth believed the plan provided for too many high-density areas, including places that didn’t make sense, such as a four-corner shopping center along the highway. “We have a mayor who is extremely in favor of high density, maybe because he grew up in New York,” she says. “When people move to Plano, that is not what they are looking for.”

“We have a mayor who is extremely in favor of high density, maybe because he grew up in New York. When people move to Plano, that is not what they are looking for.”

She also feared the traffic and noise that density would bring, and she worried about shrinking green space and the impact that apartment dwellers might have on Plano’s beloved schools. She and her neighbors formed an organization called Plano Future and organized a petition drive to force a referendum on the comprehensive plan. In two weeks, they gathered more than 4,000 signatures. But the city secretary declined to forward that petition to the City Council for ratification, citing state law that prohibits public referendums on zoning matters. That’s when the issue of Plano’s growth turned from a community squabble into a massive legal mess.

Carruth, along with five co-petitioners, filed a lawsuit against the city. Without getting lost in the details of a suit that involves multiple elements of the public referendum procedure, it is enough to know that after three years, the tangle of claims remains unresolved. And now half the state, it seems, has gotten involved. Texas cities from Amarillo to Arlington, Dallas to Sugar Land, as well as organizations like the Texas Municipal League, Texas City Attorneys Association, American Planning Association, and International Municipal Lawyers Association have submitted amicus briefs in support of Plano. They argue that comprehensive planning processes are too lengthy and too complicated, and require too much expert input to subject them to popular referendum. If Carruth and her co-petitioners prevail, it would set a precedent that could disrupt the ability of Texas cities to create long-range development plans. Carruth, though, sees a referendum as a tool of democracy in its purest form—a community’s last line of defense against elected officials who are pushing density and change on a community that doesn’t want it.

Something other than democracy, though, appears to be at stake. Looking at the history of accusations, rumors, and disinformation surrounding this fight, the conflict seems more closely connected to clashing visions of American life. Beginning with the Levittown developments after World War II, the American suburb was sold as an ideal of success built on prosperity and homogeneity. But the sense of permanence and security suggested by that ideal was also something of an illusion. The suburban development model, in fact, promoted a cycle of growth that transformed communities into a kind of disposable commodity. Today’s attractive suburb becomes tomorrow’s eroding, challenged community. North Texas’ inner-ring suburbs were once treasured, only to be abandoned for the greener pastures of Plano. Now, just as Carruth once moved from Farmers Branch to Plano, younger families are moving farther out, to towns like Anna and Melissa.

For the communities left behind, the only way to survive is to adapt, which is exactly what the Plano Tomorrow plan attempts to do. As demographics have shifted, the inner-ring suburbs have seen their tax bases shrink, infrastructure crumble, and schools suffer. By strategically introducing pockets of density that complement existing suburban neighborhoods, the Plano Tomorrow plan offers a road map to shoring up long-term prosperity. Even Carruth admits she enjoys the shops and restaurants at the mixed-use Legacy West development.

“We have what I call First World problems,” LaRosiliere says. “I interface with a lot of mayors across the country. The problems we have in Plano are what other mayors would absolutely envy.”

There is, of course, an ugly subtext to all this talk about density and development. During a recent election, the Plano mayor says, he was accused of “trying to turn Plano into another Harlem.” An opponent’s campaign slogan was “Keep Plano Suburban.” “It is not only the elephant in the room, it is the hippopotamus and the bear in the room,” LaRosiliere says. “In Council meetings, in their rhetoric, when people say, ‘Those kids shouldn’t be in school with our kids. People in apartments will cause crime.’ The racial undertones have been very clear. We had a guy come up to Council and say, ‘Hey, you’re the black mayor.’ The ugliness is there. Some are more adept at masking their rhetoric than others.”

What’s at stake, then, is more than just a legal case. Plano faces a deeply philosophical conflict. Will its citizens embrace the change that has been a hallmark of their community’s success? Or will they fight endlessly in the pursuit of a suburban dream that is already a figment of the nostalgic past?

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