Suburbatopia

Placid Frisco has its own version of a political uprising

I am so laden, so heavily weighted, so freighted down with reverse-snob anti-suburban bias that I shouldn't even open my mouth. But...oh, guess I will anyway.

In the suburban Beulah Land of Frisco, Texas, I spy something interesting, which surprises me--a strange refracted image of our own urban woes in Dallas. Apparently in Frisco an uprising is afoot.

Knock me over with a feather. I didn't think people there uprose. It's just proof that people, even when they live in Frisco, are people.

The political ferment in Frisco is, like our own turmoil in Dallas, an expression of deep-seated anxiety about the direction Frisco is going. To which I find myself asking: Why would Frisco be going anywhere?

It's a gated community. I thought the whole point was not to go anywhere. See, now that's my bias showing up again, plain and simple. Darn.

Frisco is 25 miles north of downtown Dallas. The 1990 census showed it with a population of 6,141. Back then, it was still one of those farmed-out North Texas cowboy-boot communities where rich people's houses were just beginning to pop up out of the cow patties like big scary mushrooms. Now its estimated population is 66,400. That's a growth of 1,000 percent. Last year alone, permits were written for almost 4,000 new houses in Frisco.

A real farmer in a pickup probably couldn't get past security in most of the new neighborhoods, where all persons without swipable picture ID are assumed to be kidnappers. One-niner-niner, we have a suspicious poor person in an ugly vehicle out here with a piece of hay, straw or other agricultural material protruding from his lip. Request authorization to use mustard gas.

The farmers are gone.

But as it turns out, much to my amazement, life is not perfect. I thought for sure it would be perfect once they got rid of the ugly vehicles and the persons who chew straw.

Several weeks ago I sat for two hours with Dr. David Becka, his wife, Carol, and their daughter Carolyn. Thanks to their efforts, Frisco will almost certainly have a charter election next May, the same day we will have one in Dallas, and like our own vote, the Frisco election will have a major impact on the shape of things to come politically in that community.

If I may jump ahead, the underlying theme of the Beckas' message is that life in the gated enclaves of Frisco is not what it's cracked up to be. Frisco City Hall is too boot-lickingly subservient to the home-building industry, they say. It has created an atmosphere where dream homes become nightmares and home buyers are without recourse.

The Beckas are proposing changes to the Frisco city charter to provide home buyers with more ammunition in shootouts with builders. Their case in point is their own shootout with the builder of the house they bought in 1998.

Dr. Becka, an orthodontist, had recently retired from the military and had come to the area to launch a new career in private practice. He and his wife paid $365,898 for the house at 5569 Gadwall Drive in "Starwood," a gated community boasting, according to the developer's Web page, "limited-access entry, lush hike and bike trails along tree-lined creeks, a private community center with a swimming pool, tot pool, cardiovascular/weight training area, indoor half-court basketball, tennis courts and more."

To me, tot pools are not a selling point. I would pay extra to be far away from them. But for the Beckas, it was all a dream come true.

"In our years in the military, we had never been able to afford to purchase a new home before," Becka told me. "We had always had to buy resales."

Oh, ouch: culture clash. In my neighborhood, we call those historic homes. But I know what he means: the ones with the windows that don't work.

Then there was reality. Often finishing each other's sentences, the Beckas and their grown daughter recited for me a terrible litany of woes over the next several years--water leak after water leak, nail-gun punctures of pipes, a bedroom flood, a gas line left open, a toilet that drained between the walls for years producing an infestation of dangerous mold.

The Beckas are still embroiled in a legal dispute with their builder, Sanders Custom Builders, a Dallas-based company. I spoke with Rick Anderson, attorney for Sanders, who declined to discuss particulars of the Beckas' complaints but did confirm one thing the Beckas had told me: Before the Beckas filed suit, Rodger Sanders, head of the company, offered to buy back the Beckas' home at the purchase price.

And here I may have another urban bias or attitude. The Beckas declined Sanders' buy-back offer, because the houses in their neighborhood are now selling at more than half a million bucks. They felt selling their house back to Sanders at less than 400 grand would be unfair, because it would deprive them of market appreciation.

I've been in a whole lot of house-buying and renovation dispute situations in the city. I woulda grabbed it. The buy-back offer seems pretty square to me.

But it's Frisco, a nicer, newer, cuddlier place than my world, and the promise is of limited-access entry, lush hike and bike trails and tot pools. So maybe people in Frisco have a right to be more demanding.

A principal complaint of the Beckas and one of the grievances they hope to redress in the proposed charter amendments for Frisco is that they have been unable to try their dispute in court. On January 24, 2005, state District Judge Mark J. Rusch in McKinney ruled that the Beckas are bound by agreements they signed at the time of purchase to take their issues instead to binding arbitration.

The Beckas say that they signed a faxed copy of a sales contract that did not show the binding arbitration requirement on the back and that they were basically duped into signing an additional arbitration agreement. The judge found otherwise: After reviewing testimony and evidence, Judge Rusch ruled that both Dr. and Mrs. Becka had "provided false testimony" on that issue and that they were "experienced and educated home buyers" who could and should have read what they were signing.

The Beckas argue they are, indeed, experienced, educated people who wound up behind the eight ball because they were playing against a slanted deck at a rigged table in a town where everybody's monkey's uncle works for the casino. They make what I think is a compelling point: If smart, experienced, educated people can't understand the deal, maybe there's something wrong with the deal.

Hence: an uprising in Beulah Land.

Last summer the Beckas and a handful of friends prowled soccer games and civic gatherings asking for signatures on a petition demanding new city-sponsored and city-enforced protections for home buyers. They collected signatures from more than 4,500 Frisco voters who support the charter amendments the Beckas are proposing: 1) a consumer warning or disclosure to make sure home buyers know exactly what they're getting into, especially with regard to binding arbitration, and 2) a requirement that home builders in Frisco pay into some kind of surety bond or escrow account to protect home buyers who get stuck with lemon houses.

Allow me to put those 4,500 signatures into perspective for you. Sure, there are more than 66,000 people living in Frisco. But according to the Collin County Elections Department, only 2,146 of them voted in the last general election. That means the Beckas are backed by more than twice the number of voters who put the Frisco mayor and city council in office.

The mayor and city council have been extremely hostile and foot-draggish about scheduling an election, even though the petitions and state law require them to call one for May 7, the same day we'll be voting on our own charter amendments in Dallas. City council member Jim Joyner, a veterinarian, has made a study of the propositions and believes they conflict with state law. He swears there is no feasible way for the city to comply with the escrow requirement.

But Joyner has discovered, as have opponents of the Blackwood proposal here, that none of his objections can even be raised legally until after an election in which the measures have been passed into law. "Our problem," he told me, "is at that point some severe damage may already be done.

"We already have developers canceling contracts for lots in developments. They're sitting back and waiting."

Aha. So we're worried mainly about the developers. And there we finally come to exactly the same issue, the same thrust, the same basic human and political dilemma out in Beulah Land that we have here in the scruffy old city: The opponents just don't get it.

Twice the number of people who voted in the last general election in Frisco have signed petitions saying that home builders have too much power, too much sway, too much advantage at Frisco City Hall. Twice the number.

Forget the technical specifics. Figure it out. Don't nickel-and-dime it. It's exactly what we have in Dallas: These petition drives have succeeded because the sponsors have tapped into political groundswells. But the opponents have headaches and can't feel the earth move.

Here's an interesting wrinkle. Dr. Becka is pretty busy with his practice, but people have been coming to him urging him to run for mayor. He told me he hasn't made up his mind yet, but he hasn't ruled it out, either.

As far as I can tell, he already has the biggest political organization in Frisco. I don't know about his shootout with the builder who sold him his house. I know there has to be more than one side to that story, and because of the litigation, I have heard only one.

But I think I'd have to put my money on Dr. Becka, his family and their supporters in a shootout with Frisco City Hall, for the same reason I'd probably bet on the charter-change proponents in Dallas.

The opponents are all deaf.

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