By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The fact is, south Denton County sprawl has come to town, and Hickory Creek has land to develop on its rural west side of I-35. The area became ripe for plucking only recently, when a new McDonald's stand helped pay to get the town sewers extended under the freeway. Now, it seems the entire west side of town is either under the blade or for sale at the right price.
The 500 houses Millie expects to be built in the next several years will be priced between $150,000 and $350,000 and aimed at young families. "People are going to be demanding we build these kinds of facilities," says Millie. Indeed, the new side of Hickory Creek appears to be a perfect habitat for carpools of Suburbans loaded with boys and girls in shin guards and cleats.
But those people, at the moment, live somewhere else, and Hickory Creek is still a small town. Nowhere is this more apparent than Millie's business card, which reads "Public works director, Building officer, Code enforcement, Animal control, Etc."
And a lot of people who have lived in Hickory Creek for decades or moved in before the late-'90s boom like it small and sleepy. Millie and his supporters never imagined the depth of feeling -- from the philosophical right and the environmental left -- or the crystallization of such a vigorous coalition of grassrooters hell-bent on seeing the plan fail.
And once they started picking apart Blue Sky, its weaknesses became clearer for everyone to see.
Jim Clarke, a Hickory Creek council member and a sales rep for a Dallas trucking firm, says the Blue Sky controversy had him talking with people whom "I'd never dream of being on the same side of, for anything."
Clarke maintains a Web site called "The Conservative Fundamentalist Whacko," on which he posts his political cartoons and Web animation. It's mostly take-no-prisoners Clinton-bashing with young women in clinging skirts and plenty of Monicagate. He added a second Web site aimed at Blue Sky after his council colleagues voted 3-2 on July 14 to enter formal negotiations with Brody. His own opposition, he says, was both philosophical and practical.
"It's a bad idea. I don't think the city should invest so much in one person's idea," he explains over a soft drink at the sewer-providing McDonald's. He would have no problem with the plan if it were pursued like most enterprises -- on private land. That option, Brody had explained to him, would mean an initial investment of as much as $2.5 million in the sports facility. Clarke says Brody never adequately explained to him why he simply did not choose that route.
Clarke believes there is a risk that the feds would close the park entirely if the Blue Sky-Hickory Creek enterprise failed. Neighboring Lake Dallas dropped the ball at one of its leased parks, and that's just what happened. Once one of these lakeside parks goes off the federal budget, it takes a vote of Congress to bring it back.
"The park is underdeveloped now, and that isn't necessarily bad. Another thing that bothers me is how this has been railroaded through. It's been rush, rush, rush. Brody arrives in May, and we're voting to jump in on the deal in July."
While Clarke fought from within, a number of ordinary citizens stepped up to organize, research, write and print fliers, petition, spin, and generally rally the opposition. "We're not a bunch of hicks," says Cherly Roemmele, who two decades ago purchased two acres on a beautiful country lane right next to the park. "We know how to do this. We've done it before."
In the late '80s, a Grand Prairie company came to town pitching a drive-through zoo. But the debate fell around election time, and the town rose up to oust the mayor and change the balance of opinion on the council. The menagerie was never heard from again.
Roemmele, a veteran of the zoo battle, says the thickets and grasslands and forested areas adjacent to her house are loaded with wildlife: bobcats, bull snakes, coyotes, red tail hawks, and all types of migrating birds. An opposition Web site quickly posted photos of four native birds on the federal endangered species list: the bald eagle (since removed from the list), the whooping crane, the mountain plover, and the black capped vireo, and instructed, "Take a photo of these birds in Westlake Park and save their home."
Real estate agent Clyde Fisher, who sells many of the $120,000 homes in the existing subdivisions of Hickory Creek, says the sleepy nature of the town and the undeveloped park land are selling points he doesn't want to lose. "That park is one of the largest pieces of undeveloped land around here, and people are trying to figure out how to feather their nests. I understand that. I'm a businessman. But it is public land. It would be better if it were brought to a public vote before they do anything with it."
Opponent Terry Dyson, an engineer, immediately began gathering documents from the Army Corps of Engineers about their requirements for such a project and at times seemed to know more than most of the politicians about the intricacies of the plan.