Walk This Way: Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere says there are racial undertones in the city’s argument over new development. Trevor Paulhus

Urbanism

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.

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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Comments

  • MattL1

    “Or will they fight endlessly in the pursuit of a suburban dream that is already a figment of the nostalgic past?”

    These people aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, so I’ll go with that one.

    • PlanoPride

      Yeah will if it is a dream it is a major form of mass hypnosis; especially for millennials. According to Steve Brown of the DMN, 60% of millennials prefer to live in suburbs and 81% prefer single family homes while only 3% prefer apartments. But I’ll go along with you; those millennials are not the sharpest knifes in the drawer.

      • MattL1

        I don’t care what you say people “prefer.” People are stupid, regardless of generation (though the Baby Boomers take the cake). I care about what will be sustainable in the long run. And a “city” based on aging single-family homes are simply not sustainable. Anybody who has played SimCity knows that.

        • PlanoPride

          Thank God you’re smarter than anyone else. So comrade, where have you posted that 5 year plan. And by the way, how’s that cure for cancer coming?

          • Mary Jay

            Whoops, ran out of arguments, time to go ad hominem.

        • Mary Jay

          Typical of the Plano’s Angry Crowd – they conflate their personal preferences with what’s morally correct. And you called it correctly MattL, they aren’t the smartest tools in the shed.

          • Mark R.

            So “the angry criwd” is going “ad hominem” but the mayor is claim we are racists and you are calling us stupid and the “angry crowd.” Really! Who is going ad hominem? Who is out of arguments?

  • Mavdog

    There is “a tool of democracy in its purest form” already existing, and it is not the referendum which Plano Future is attempting to force on the community.
    That tool is the election of the Mayor and City Council.

    • PlanoPride

      Mavdog, No one is forcing anything on anyone. The 4,000+ citizens have earned the right to a referendum by hard work and following the law. Get it? They have a right. Read the charter, if you can. Which is why the Plano Tomorrow Plaintiffs have won every court case. It is the City that is spending our money and forcing something on the community. Saying Plano Tomorrow Plaintiffs are forcing a referendum on the community is like saying you’re forcing your vote on someone. You have a right and so do the Plaintiffs.

      • Mary Jay

        More than 4,000 citizens wanted Tom Harrison out, but your gang got that petition thrown out on a technicality and crowed about it. So keep in mind that 4,000 signatures is not necessarily indicative of the majority of Plano’s 276,000 residents. Maybe more like 4,000 members of PBC.

      • Mavdog

        Thanks for totally ignoring the point made, which is if the Plano Future wants democracy in its purest form” get their candidates elected to the City Council.

        4,000 residents signed a petition that wants the other 85% of the community to spend money on an election, and to have the mass of uninformed citizens vote on a complicated master development plan.

        Sounds like a great plan for paralysis. A costly paralysis.

    • PlanoPride

      As as far as the purest form of democracy is concerned (which our City government isn’t by the way), it has been corrupted by money. LaRosiliere was given $350k in funds for his campaign; over 6 times more than his closet rival. Where did that money come from? It wasn’t the red cross. It came from developers, builders, real estate interested and management companies. He still eked out a very narrow win. So who is forcing what on us?

      • Mary Jay

        So, wait, you hate business? People who build stuff, create jobs, make the wheels of the economy turn?

  • Heather Grunwald Janco

    What happened to his promise “My vision for Plano in the next 10 years is to be the same city it is today”? They need to get him out of office A.S.A.P!!! If he wants to be mayor of an urban city he needs to move to Atlanta and leave Plano alone. Why did they even elect him in the first place? They need to keep Plano, Plano! I think it is crap when people move into a place that has more than succeeded since the 70s and then try to change it. He is not looking out for his people, or are they his people, the people of Plano! As long as it is still an upscale urban area like Legacy and not like the section 8 apartments that moved in near Willowbend. I agree, East Plano does need to be saved from ruin. Although, it was very sad to see the antique shops lose their homes when they started changing downtown.

    • Steve Benson

      When you write of people moving into a place and then trying to change it I assume you are writing of Beth Carruth?

      • Mary Jay

        Good one!

    • Mary Jay

      Who are all these “THEYS” you speak of? The “THEY” that elected him – do mean, say, the citizens of Plano? The “THEY” that changed downtown – do you mean, like, economic change and progress? And where exactly are these “Section 8 apartments” in Willow Bend, or Plano, or Collin County for that matter? Please, an address, and facts. And just because you don’t happen to like the looks of a particular apartment complex doesn’t mean it’s Section 8.

  • dallasmay

    ” 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.”

    It’s great to see reporters finally really starting to understand the whole Ponzi Scheme of suburbia. Single family suburbs were always tax-subsidized. Once the subsidies run out, they can’t pay their way anymore. Their city’s will change one way or the other.

    • TexasJoe1949

      For a community to survive it needs an employment base. Plano has developed this fortunately. And many of the jobs offer more than minimum wages meaning that the employees can afford decent housing and have money to spend on shopping and entertainment which helps the economy and employment. The economy is circular and either spins upward or downward.

      • dallasmay

        It’s not jobs, it’s tax base. Single family homes, in the long term, are ultimately tax revenue negative for cities. Families require more in services than they pay in taxes. Commercial and industrial are the opposite. They pay much more then they receive in services. Of course, this is obvious if you think about it -businesses aren’t using libraries or parks very much. The challenge is to get the right balance. Have too much single family residential, and you will have trouble maintaining the infrastructure and services the residents expect their city to provide. In that regard, Plano is doing better than most post-war suburbs, I think, but time will tell.

        Remember 90%+ of Plano’s development is less than 40 years old. It’s still a first generation city. Plano should look to Irving as a foreshadowing of what’s likely to come for it.

        • Tom Brooks

          Except that Plano has sought out business for decades and has been very successful at landing it (the recent wins are Toyota, Liberty Mutual, JP Morgan, Fedex Office), knowing that business is needed to prop up the tax base.

          • dallasmay

            How is that different than Irving and Las Colinas thirty to forty years ago.

            Remember, Toyota is making a big investment, but it probably won’t be in Plano 40 years from now.

          • Tom Brooks

            I’m not sure what is different with Irving and Las Colinas. It is my impression that Plano is a much larger employment center and continues to land big corporate tenants bringing lots of jobs. Toyota, Liberty Mutual and JP Morgan each brought in the 4,000 range, as I understand it. Plano has also been good at replacing the big tenants when they leave or fail. Is it sustainable? I don’t know, but I’m okay with efforts to create some more urban and walkable neighborhoods among our single-family enclaves (and I love my single-family home lifestyle).

  • TexasJoe1949

    I grew up in a small town south of Dallas. They would absolutely love to have the tax base, services, schools and other amenities in Plano. After living out of state, I moved back here in the mid 70s. Plano was at the beginning of its growth phase so I’ve had a chance to observe and experience it. The reality is that unlike some suburbs, Plano has developed a strong commercial tax base. Residential property uses more dollars of services than it produces in local property taxes. Suburbia can be a no win situation when the city ages and major capital replacement is necessary. Being able to draw a significant base of commercial property stabilizes the community’s tax base. Contrary to what some people think, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If a community does not have industry and substantial commercial job centers, eventually it will stagnate in terms of the quality of services it provides. The current in-vogue view is that govt is bad. It sucks up money and provides stuff people don’t want. The reality is that if a city does not have high quality schools, maintains infrastructure such as streets, utilities, protective services and have a positive appearance, it will have a slow death. Money has to be spent on community amenities in order to maintain real estate values. The reason for the big jump in prices especially in the northern suburbs is their reputation for high quality services, retail centers, entertainment and the rest. Because of the cost of living and housing going up, apartments and other more dense residential housing is essential both for younger people and those who cannot afford to buy. Many younger people do not want to own and do not care about the suburban life style. If those folks cannot afford to live around here, the companies won’t locate here.

  • Kyle Reese

    NIMBYism!

  • Phil

    Opponents of the plan realize that it is longer culturally acceptable to direct scorn towards those they find unworthy of living next door to them. So instead they direct it towards the ones who enable it. Density and diversity ensure the prosperity of maturing cities and that’s precisely what Plano leaders have wisely intended to do here.

  • Tom Brooks

    Here are a few facts:
    – Plano ISD enrollment has been flat or down for years. While there might have been an occasional elementary school overcrowded over the years, it is completely false to say schools are overcrowded because of apartments in Plano. This is easy to look up.
    – Going back to the early 80s, the City of Plano has sought to bring in business to mitigate the tax burden of homeowners. This was a stated goal. The city has been very successful at this. Plano has the lowest tax rate among suburbs in the area. If you didn’t know that Plano intended (at least for the past 35-plus years) to bring in business, you weren’t paying attention. This is how you can afford to have great infrastructure to support single-family residential living.
    – Every single living former mayor of Plano (which includes the mayors from the imagined “golden age” of Plano, whatever that is) endorsed Harry. Every single one!
    – The Plano Tomorrow plan is not zoning, Each zoning case still goes through normal channels. There is a thumbs up or a thumbs down from the Planning and Zoning Commission before it goes to City Council, where the same thing happens.
    – Under the plan that Plano Tomorrow replaced, more apartments were projected than in the plan folks are complaining about.
    – Plano is an incredibly well-run city. We have tremendous diversity and that makes it a better place to live.

    • Phil

      Well stated, Tom. The undertones from many opponents when they speak about “apartment kids” are very concerning.

    • Happy Bennett

      I always find it curious that property taxes in communities where ISD enrollment is “flat or down” continue to escalate dramatically (Richardson is also like this). So what IS going on, that makes it difficult for workers and those on fixed incomes to continue to live in their homes.