By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The couple is essentially a legal monopoly in Flower Mound, a quaint 'burb 30 miles north of Dallas in Denton County. Donna Morris represents all kinds of people. From business law and estates to tort and criminal law, her clientele is diverse. But her main area of expertise is building and development law. As thrilling as that sounds, after doing this for 15 years, Morris doesn't particularly like bringing her work home. She deals, after all, with the eye-popping excitement of such things as zoning disputes day in and day out. So a couple years ago she decided she needed a hobby: an after-school activity of sorts.
She also happened to have a fight to pick. In her eyes, everything was not well in Flower Mound, the Beverly Hills of Dallas' urban sprawl. A political action committee called Voters United, launched four years ago with the purpose of keeping Flower Mound's growth under control, had virtually taken over the town, putting its members on the town council and in the mayor's office. Morris had felt the brunt of their growing power. Her developer clients found they had to jump through innumerable bureaucratic hoops in Flower Mound to get any project off the ground, and Morris, a developer herself, didn't think it was fair.
Now Doe Boyle, a Flower Mound local, used to run a community newspaper called Pipeline. As in small towns all over Texas, Pipeline was a down-home publication that informed residents about bake sales, how many home runs the Walton kid hit in the big game, the new road that will be paved next month, and so on. Boyle fell ill and stopped publishing a year and a half ago, leaving Flower Mound's residents uninformed. Here was Morris' opening. The attorney thought it a shame that such an interesting, rapidly growing town would lack its own newspaper.
At first, there was talk of purchasing Pipeline, but for obvious reasons, that didn't work out. There is no earthly rationale for buying a newspaper that has already shut down. Anyway, Doe wanted too much money, Morris says. So one night, she got a phone call from her friend Deborah Rauen. The two had known each other for years, having served together on various charitable boards. Rauen, formerly with the Lewisville Leader, another local newspaper, wanted to start up a Flower Mound newspaper.
What a coincidence.
"It just was like it was meant to be," says Morris. "She was talking about starting up some kind of trade publication, so we sat down."
Out of that sit-down would come a brand-new publication just for Flower Mound: The Messenger. A community newspaper boasting about the "good life" seemed to be the perfect complement for Flower Mound's marble-topped coffee tables and elegant sun rooms.
Rauen took the role of publisher and brought in Deborah Brewington, a former colleague at the Lewisville Leader, to do layout, and Michael Ryan, a Leader reporter who had been covering Flower Mound. The bimonthly Messenger, supported by advertising and distributed to every household in Flower Mound through direct mail, eventually became so successful that the Leader got in a twist and started putting out a competing edition called the Flower Mound Leader.
Like its rival and predecessor, The Messenger covers the obligatory small-town stuff: High school student Jay Barr snags a national ROTC honor; the local Girl Scout chapter launches its cookie sale; Crossroads Bible Church changes its times of worship. But there is a difference.
Somewhere along the way, Morris and The Messenger took it upon themselves to become the alternative editorial voice in Flower Mound, fingerpointing at the heavy-handed tactics of Voters United, the group that hates seeing men in construction hats and runs the political show in town. Things got downright nasty: The Messenger ran a cartoon with the Voters United-aligned mayor, Lori DeLuca, depicted as a witch on a broom; published a one-sided news story about the marital problems of a town council member who also belonged to Voters United; and reprinted a sinister-sounding e-mail between Mayor DeLuca and her assistant about how they used to be so good at "swaying public opinion" by writing letters to the editor in the Lewisville Leader. (DeLuca claims Morris fabricated the e-mail. Morris insists it's authentic but won't reveal how she got it.)
Every issue of The Messenger, in fact, takes at least one potshot at Voters United and its allies. What began as an old-fashioned newspaper pissing match has now blossomed into war, with Morris and her developer buddies squaring off against the affluent residents and city politicians who want to keep Flower Mound exactly the way it is: a model of spacious, quiet suburban life.
It may seem like a simple tale of small-time politicians who don't want to be pestered by an attorney and her pet newspaper. But there's more at stake here: the soul, such as it is, of suburban Flower Mound. There aren't too many variations in the landscape here, not in the architecture or among the people. Voters United members want to keep the town their own and keep the riffraff out. Problem is, Morris observes, that riffraff includes everyone who can't afford a $250,000 house.
Go about eight miles outside of the town center, and the landscape looks the way it probably did to the pioneers. There are hills and trees and flowers and animals, a sharp contrast from neighboring Lewisville, which is characterized more by fast-food restaurants than by nature.
Some 53,000 people live in Flower Mound today, representing a fourfold increase since 1990. Driving along FM 1171 into town, the first striking visual is the horde of SUVs. Flower Mound is one of those municipalities responsible for blasting softball-sized holes in the ozone with these gas guzzlers, jet-black Lexus LX 470s and Mercedes ML320s. Like any Texas town, there are also a lot of pickup trucks. These, however, do not carry payloads of scrap lumber, old mattresses, and dirty hound dogs. In Flower Mound, urban cowboys roll high off the road in their jacked-up $32,000 Ford F-150 SuperCrews, complete with leather interiors and state-of-the-art sound systems. Neil Diamond never sounded so good.
At the intersection of Morriss and Cross Timber roads one particular Tuesday afternoon, two huge cops, both sporting blond crew cuts and Francis Poncherello sunglasses, have a black woman handcuffed at the side of the road in full view of God and everyone else. She probably isn't from here; the town is 95 percent white, according to city statistics. If one seeks a little diversity--by north suburban standards, anyway--he has to go up the road to Lewisville, where only 89 percent are white.
Head a bit further down Morriss Street, and you hit the kind of suburban neighborhoods where Edward Scissorhands might have lived. The houses have slight variations, but the styles seem to be cut from the same batch of cookie dough. The roofs are all the same color, and ADT Security signs line the walkways to the front doors. The mailboxes are encased in brick, matching the houses' brick façades. Many here obviously take the "good fences" approach to neighborhood relations. Huge fences demarcate people's yards; no one's seeing in these windows.
Flower Mound residents swear by their town and its way of life. Glenda Duke lived in Dallas until she moved here in 1992. "It's absolutely beautiful out here," she says. "We happen to live on a property with a nice woods, and it creates a natural canopy to sit under, and I like to have my coffee out there."
Bobbye Meek, a resident since 1985, says she wouldn't live anywhere else in North Texas. "I was on park boards at one point, trying to get any nickel I could just to get playgrounds in around here," she says. "It's good people that have a lot of passion about keeping this community somewhat in check. Some people go overboard, though. There's always been your average folks and there's also been your zealots."
And if there's one thing both average folks and zealots are united against, it's development. Excessive development. Flower Mound is growing at an explosive rate: In 1990, there were only 15,500 people. Nowadays, construction trucks hog the recently widened road into the Mound. If the town were to continue growth at a rate consistent with the last 10 years, Flower Mound would be home to some 181,000 people by the year 2010. There's no way it would be able to maintain its prestige. With a population the size of Irving, there's bound to be some drive-through liquor stores and a few more than the 19 residential burglaries Flower Mound police recorded in 1999.
Given Flower Mound's runaway growth, a movement like "SMART Growth" was destined to spring up. Hailed by some as the savior of Flower Mound and by some as Public Enemy No. 1, SMART Growth is the brainchild of Lori DeLuca. A former housewife, 40-year-old Mayor DeLuca is now a key player in shaping town policy.
DeLuca's metamorphosis from housewife to small-town politician happened in 1996, when she became aware of a development proposal near her home that didn't comply with the town's master plan. After talking with neighbors, DeLuca discovered that virtually everyone opposed this project. So they banded together and fought it for six months, eventually stopping the development. When all was said and done, the neighbors patted one another on the back and prepared to go back to their usual quiet lives. But within a couple of weeks, DeLuca got a call from another neighborhood going through the same thing. A week after that, it was another neighborhood.
The Flower Mound she knew was in danger from the schemes of developers who didn't live there and would never have to suffer from the results. "It started out as a concern for what was going on in people's back yards and grew into concern for the town," DeLuca says. Her group of neighbors went from a loosely organized band of concerned citizens sitting around DeLuca's kitchen table to a registered PAC, Voters United to Preserve Flower Mound, in 1997. Voters United saw themselves as crusaders for the town's master plan, which cost about $500,000 to draft and reflects Flower Mound's vision for controlled, responsible growth.
DeLuca was Voters United's founding president, passing the torch to Vikki Fulfer in 1998. All kinds of people joined Voters United; from politicians to teachers, Flower Mound residents wanted their voices heard on the issue of growth. They've made no attempts to hide the fact that they are against their town turning into a Plano or even a Lewisville, with its tract housing and numerous strip malls. Their movement has been so popular, in fact, that many town council members in recent years have campaigned on their endorsements from Voters United. Flower Mound residents proved their wide support of the SMART Growth stance by electing DeLuca as mayor in 1998.
These days, Voters United has grown way beyond its grass roots. The town manager and all six members of the town council, which includes the mayor, belong to Voters United, and each of the Voters United members embraces the SMART Growth philosophy. Beyond that, it's impossible to gauge the extent of Voters United's influence, since, as a PAC, it doesn't have to disclose its membership or how much money it's collected.
But it's clearly gone a long way toward accomplishing its sole mission: to regulate growth. And in the process, Voters United-aligned city officials have made life hell for Donna Morris and her developer clients.
Her wish is to see a classless Flower Mound, where people of all races and religions play nice and where neighbors see one another more than once a year when their garage doors break down.
Maybe she's a little disingenuous, a bit biased; after all, the people that Voters United are messing with are either potential clients or sources of Messenger revenue. But she's also offended by the way Voters United has built a political dynasty in Flower Mound that seemingly squelches out any diversity or difference.
Some 3,500 people voted in the May election, in which all three Voters United town council incumbents were re-elected, and Voters United, by its own estimate, has 3,000 members. Morris insists she wants people of all demographics living in the town, mingling together. This, despite the fact that her house is one of the only ones in her neighborhood with a huge wooden fence around it.
Mayor DeLuca points to another possible reason for Morris' crusade against Voters United: a personal feud between the two women dating to 1998.
Before DeLuca ran for mayor, she says, Morris approached her and asked whether Voters United would endorse her candidacy for state representative. "I told her we don't get involved in state races," DeLuca says. "Only Flower Mound. She was really, really upset about that. About a year ago, she started The Messenger, and it's pretty incredible, probably even bordering on libel with malice."
Before Morris' failed bid for state representative, the women had been friends. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. Their children no longer play together, and Morris frequently compares Mayor DeLuca to Bill Clinton. In conservative Flower Mound, being compared to Satan is a better fate.
Morris and DeLuca dog each other at every opportunity. In interviews, they initially speak as if this conflict were not personal; it's a political quarrel, they say. But after 15 minutes of conversation, their feelings for each other come out. DeLuca says the only function of The Messenger is to blast her and her government. Morris, meanwhile, is convinced the town council has it in for her and is trying to keep her from developing the 10 acres of commercially zoned property she owns.
"There's something about Flower Mound...that makes the guys down in Dallas laugh at us. What is that?" Morris asks. Then she answers her own question: The butt of the joke is affluent, lily-white suburbanites walking in lockstep to the dictates of an organization like Voters United.
She's not alone in her view of the group. Flower Mound resident Glenda Duke, who works for an insurance agency, sympathizes with the concept of SMART Growth, but she doesn't approve of Voters United's tactics. "I respect their organizational skills, and there's a lot of good people that are members," Duke says. "But there are a lot of innocent people that don't have a clue what they belong to. They get approached right away."
Duke says Voters United has a group of 10 to 12 people who are very vocal and never miss town council meetings. They publicly blast The Messenger and comment on how it has as much journalistic integrity as, say, the National Enquirer. Town Manager Van James even wrote a letter to Messenger reporter Mike Fickling and told him the town wouldn't bother to send The Messenger a press kit because it didn't meet the city's criteria for a bona fide newspaper.
Voters United rubbed Duke the wrong way right from the start. When she moved to a new area of Flower Mound, a neighbor--entirely lacking in bedside manner, she says--approached her and tried to commit her to VU. "She had no idea that we weren't new to the community; our business had been here six years," Duke recalls. "She kind of tackled my husband and tried to get him involved."
Bobbye Meek, former marketing director of Southwest Land and Title in Flower Mound, says some well-known members of Voters United--whom she declined to name--contacted area businesses and indicated that they would, as a group, boycott businesses that advertised in The Messenger. The intent, she says, was to undermine the paper's income and force it to shut down.
"The Messenger, regardless of how controversial it is, has proven to be a very effective vehicle for advertisers as it tends to be very well read," Meek says. "It is Flower Mound information and news, so as a business person, you look to communicate with the citizens."
Most VU members, Meek says, don't care much about politics or support the boycott concept. But she remembers having a conversation with Voters United member Steve Webb at a local deli. It was a casual encounter, but he did hint at some strange stuff. "He simply said, 'Heads up. This is coming down the pike. They're going to boycott advertisers.' I told him I advertise in The Messenger. He said, 'I know.'"
Webb refused comment when asked to tell his side of the story, and instead directed all questions to his lawyer, Kent Hofmeister, who didn't return phone calls from the Dallas Observer. But Mayor DeLuca and court records confirm that Webb, acting on his own, made threats to the business community, claiming he represented Voters United as a whole.
When Morris found out about the threatened boycott, she was furious. Morris didn't want anyone tampering with the paper's revenue, and she had good reason: She'd already sunk more than $100,000 into her project. She fired off a letter on behalf of Covenant Publishing, publisher of The Messenger, to Voters United, stating that: "Demand is hereby made that the organization and each of its members cease and desist from any further contacts. In the event that you fail to do so, rest assured that suit will be filed."
Voters United-aligned town Councilman Jim Cook took Morris' letter and wrote on the bottom: "Do you want your business to be associated with this sort of thing?" He then mailed it to all of The Messenger's advertisers.
Morris' own actions, DeLuca says, were less than aboveboard. "She sent the letter pretending to have been hired by Covenant Publishing to represent them and everything, pretending like she wasn't the owner," DeLuca says. Morris, however, is Covenant Publishing--the name for the company that puts out The Messenger. She printed her letter on Morris and Morris stationery and stated she represents Covenant, which is a sly way of saying she represents herself.
Morris did make good on her threat to sue Voters United, claiming the organization unlawfully interfered with her business relationships with advertisers. In late March, Denton County Judge Donald R. Windle granted a temporary injunction against Steve Webb, who is prohibited from approaching advertisers about the boycott. The judge said in his ruling that Webb "went over the line" by threatening a boycott and claiming that he represented Voters United as a whole. "It's terrible," the judge said. "...It's over the line. He ought to know it." VU President Vikki Fulfer was ordered to write a letter to the members of Voters United and warn them about the injunction against Webb. As for Councilman Cook, the judge deemed his actions basically harmless.
The judge didn't find any evidence that Voters United, the organization, acted outside of its First Amendment rights as a political action committee. He even expressed a bit of sympathy for DeLuca and her fellow elected officials. "Flower Mound...has been a hotbed of controversy for a long time," he said from the bench. "The way you can get seriously criticized is get elected mayor of Flower Mound or be on the city council or anything else, because there are huge divergences of opinion in that town."
Both Morris and DeLuca insist their sides won. DeLuca points out that Voters United is basically off the hook; Morris points to the injunction against Webb as her victory and gloats about Fulfer's letter of penance.
Lost amidst the recriminations is the irony that Morris, so vigorous in exercising her First Amendment rights to publish what is, in fact, a rather sophomoric newspaper, quickly took severe measures to counteract the efforts of Voters United members to express their displeasure with The Messenger. The judge noted this clash of First Amendment interests in his ruling.
Morris is, at best, a problematic poster child for a free press; she admits she's declined to publish in her newspaper either of the two letters to the editor she's received from Voters United supporters.
But some local developers and real estate agents don't agree with that assessment. In fact, they're scared as hell of Voters United.
One such developer, who asked that his name not be printed, fears for his livelihood if he comments at all on the organization. His comments, he said, may be construed as controversial or negative and come back to haunt him. "I'd be shooting myself in the foot," he said. "Flower Mound is very particular as to who comes into the community and what comes into the community. And they set some pretty high standards. What they want is something that's going to reflect the quality of life that they think they have here. And they're pretty tough about it."
He says that Voters United controls the town, because the mayor, town council, and Planning and Zoning Commission consist mostly of Voters United members.
"They have shown to be intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their viewpoints or opinions," he says. "Whether I like it or don't like it isn't a question for me. It's how do I work within the framework that they have set?"
That question was answered by one of the few sources willing to speak out publicly on behalf of the developers. Bob Morris (no relation to Donna Morris), CEO of the Dallas office of the Home Builders Association, says unapologetically that the entire town of Flower Mound is under the thumb of Voters United. Morris says that VU's hidden agenda is to chase new home construction out of the town of Flower Mound and that they will accomplish that feat in two years.
"What's going to happen is that the process Voters United backs in town council and with the Planning and Zoning Commission is an unpredictable and burdensome process," he says. "There are some 23 steps that a landowner who has a desire to develop his property must go through. It's extremely time-consuming and it's very, very costly. The city is basically saying they don't want to create any more infrastructure to accommodate future development."
He cites Plano--ironically, some VU members' definition of a suburban nightmare--as a model of a community that dealt with growth head-on and came out relatively clean. Plano looked at growth in advance, he says, recognized it was bound to expand, and attempted to reconcile everyone's best interests. Rather then taking the obstructionist point of view, it ensured that city infrastructure kept pace with growth.
"I think Plano is a good example of a growth pattern that's very aggressive and that works," Bob Morris says. "The mayor wants Flower Mound to be the next Highland Park of the region."
At the same time, though, there is an obvious and striking aesthetic difference between the multiple homes crowded onto a single acre in Plano and the 40,000-square-foot lots for a single home in Flower Mound. In fact, after all of the approved lots are built out in Flower Mound--which Morris estimates will happen in about two years--two-acre lots will be the only approved residential growth in Cross Timbers Forest, the primest of Flower Mound's prime real estate.
That's a good thing, DeLuca says; many trees will be preserved.
That's a terrible thing, Donna Morris says; it will kill any growth.
What's clear is that Flower Mound intends to become more exclusive, not less. Most lots currently on the market are between 10,000 square feet and one acre. A two-acre lot is not only tough to acquire but tough to maintain. Today, the average 10,000-square-foot lot and home in Flower Mound costs around $250,000. Two acres, or 87,120 square feet, is more than eight times the average-size lot. So a new house two years from now would cost the landowner much more than the current price.
Despite Morris and The Messenger's plaints about diversity, Flower Mound's town council is resolute in wanting to maintain country club-style living. It's hard to blame them. Flower Mound is, in comparison to other Dallas suburbs, a beautiful place. The Cross Timbers Forest, with its oak-jacketed hills and wildflowers, comes right out of a Robert Frost poem. But there's something here that doesn't love a Mending Wall.
Voters United and Morris are unyielding in their beliefs, though the attorney is winning at least one battle: Her legal fight is draining the pockets of Voters United. Each time she files a motion for an injunction or takes a deposition, VU has to dig in and pump its members for donations.
Her fight is also flushing out other dissidents. The town of Flower Mound maintains a Web site, which brags about the region's appeal. The site posts town statistics as well as glamour shots of the mayor and town council at www.flower-mound.com. But equally interesting is a spin-off of the Web site, www.flower-mound-online.com. Sam Maddox, a local resident and critic of Voters United, created the parody site the day after the May 6 election, when Voters United-backed candidates swept the two council seats and mayoral position up for grabs. All three were incumbents who won by no less than 60 percent of the vote. Maddox, it seems, has tapped into growing unease about VU's dynasty, having received nearly 3,000 hits in a month on his Web site.
He talks about the record turnout in May's election. In years past, only 1,400 or so people would bother to show up for municipal elections. But Voters United has those 3,000 members, ready to march. "People in Flower Mound are busy with their families, and they travel on business and so forth, and it's hard for people to get really tuned in to what's going on in town," Maddox says. "That's why such a small group controls such a populace."
Maddox preaches diversity. He says the town desperately needs opposing voices on the council. SMART Growth can't be tempered or swayed without a couple of non-VU members in place, he says.
"I mean, the first thing the mayor did when she got in office was replace everyone on the Planning and Zoning Commission with her people," he says about DeLuca's first election as mayor in 1998. "She kicked every one of them off. She developed a liaison position between the town and the school district and put one of her best friends on that position, Sydney Bentz."
DeLuca counters that the position existed before she took office, and the town council elects the liaison: She doesn't get a vote. She also says it was the town council as a whole that bounced four of seven members from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
DeLuca, it seems, has no intention of loosening her organization's hold on Flower Mound. "You don't want to appoint your enemies," she says.