Friday, December 26, 2008

What’s on Tap for 2009

Well, 2008 was certainly a year that’ll linger in my memory. Few would argue that the election signaled a turning point in America – and in Frisco, Texas as well. The process itself was certainly a spectacle. Start with the requisite discussions of qualifications. Mix in a few accusations of ethical conflicts. Then, toss in a hot-button “values” issue to stir up the grass-roots types. Yes folks, this year’s Mayoral election was all that and a bag of chips! (Oh, there was that other election in November. But hey, this is “The Frisco Line” not “The Beltway Blog”!)

Outside of politics, Frisco residents have some other highlights to remember from the year gone by. We’ve seen the first sections of the SH-121 tollway open. Centennial High School got its first win over the Raccoons, even if it did take overtime. And Babe’s Chicken House opened in the Heritage Center. Mmmm…

But let us not dwell on the past. Instead, let’s look into 2009 and see what the crystal ball has in store for our sleepy little suburb.

Another Election – Before we have a chance to catch our collective breath from last year’s contests, we’re faced with another pair of open City Council seats. Both Tony Felker and Joy West face the reality of term limits and will step down in June. That leaves wide-open races to replace them. We certainly had no shortage of candidates for the two positions claimed by Bart Crowder and Scott Johnson last year. Here’s hoping that an equally qualified slate registers for the next contest. In particular, I hope we’ll see a collection of minority and female candidates to provide some much-needed diversity to our government.

Another New High School – It just wouldn’t be Frisco if we didn’t have another new high school open its doors. Heritage High – located on Eldorado Parkway near Custer – will be the fifth high school in the Frisco Independent School district. Incoming principal Mark Mimms is already facing the most daunting task of his new administration: what’s the mascot going to be? Raccoons, Titans, Wolverines and Redhawks already have a place in Frisco lore. What’s next?

The state of Frisco high schools is more than an academic interest for me. The eldest of the Frisco Line offspring is set to enter ninth grade next year. Which makes me happy for…

The Renovated StarCenter Opening – For too many years, Frisco’s high school seniors and their families had to trek to Garland and other neighboring cities for their graduation ceremonies. That ends this year as the Dr Pepper StarCenter’s Deja Blue Ice Arena is being expanded to handle, among other things, commencement ceremonies for all our local schools. In addition, the center is poised to become a top notch venue for concerts, sporting events and other activities. This, along with Pizza Hut Park and Dr Pepper Ballpark (home of the Rough Riders), should help cement Frisco as a hub for these events in North Dallas. And that, of course, should help insulate us from…

The Impact of the Economic Downturn – Thus far, Frisco has been spared the brunt of the economic turmoil that rocked the nation – and the world – in 2008. We’ve seen a drop in the growth rate from a peak of 300 new homes per month, down to a current level just under 100. But we’re still growing, and that has helped soften the blow. To date, the city has been able to keep tax rates flat, while maintaining current service levels. If, as some expect, the worst is over and we see an uptick as 2009 progresses, then we should weather the storm well. If not, then we can hope that the City Council, including its two newest members, will continue the fiscal conservative policies that have gotten us this far.

Last year I wished for a “real” bagel shop in Frisco. My pleas were answers when The Bagel Factory opened on Preston Road. Sadly, my wish for an FC Dallas playoff victory was dashed. So, let’s toss that one out there again. C’mon Hoops… how ‘bout it?

And finally, as with last year – and all-too many before that – it is my fervent hope that all of Frisco’s sons, daughters, mothers and fathers serving our country overseas make it home safely. As the son of a career military man who served in Vietnam, I know only too well the burden borne by the families left behind.

Frisco continues to be a great place to call home. I’m sure the coming year will have its share of ups and downs. Here’s wishing you and yours a prosperous 2009 and beyond.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Community Design with the Congress of Neighborhoods

Dr. Frankenstein had it easy. He knew exactly what he needed to build the perfect monster. Arms? 2. Legs? 2. Nose? 1. Brain (abnormal or otherwise)? 1. The checklist was there in Anatomy 101. Toss it all together; add a carefully timed lightning bolt and voila!

No, if you want a real challenge, try putting together the perfect neighborhood. The first thing you’d need to do is figure out what goes into such a civic construction. There is no handbook with a complete reference. In fact, bring together a group of twenty or thirty people and you’d likely get a wide variety of features.

This is just what happened last Saturday morning. Greg Carr, Frisco’s Code Enforcement Administrator, hosted the first “Congress of Neighborhoods” as a forum to explore just what makes for a good place to live. An open invitation went out to all the residents of Frisco, and thirty or so people answered the call. I was fortunate enough to participate in the event, and came away with some ideas I hadn’t originally contemplated.

So what goes into the recipe?

Right at the top of most lists is Amenities. This is good news considering the amount of money Frisco spends building dandy community parks. It’s gratifying to know that these efforts are appreciated. Of course, the challenge comes in defining what those amenities should be. If your family has two pre-schoolers, having a swing set, slide and jungle gym are a must. But older families might prefer a spray ground or basketball courts. If there are large numbers of empty nesters, then tennis courts might be desirable. Things would be much easier if a neighborhood were more homogenous, wouldn’t it?

Not so fast! It seems another desirable trait for Frisco neighborhoods (according to the folks in the Congress) is Diversity. A phrase usually reserved for ethnic distinctions, diversity also refers to having a range of age groups. Studies have shown that having this kind of age-based variety has a distinct impact on safety, as it’s less likely that everyone will be gone at the same time of day or evening. Having some retirees puttering around their gardens during the middle of the afternoon can deter ne’er-do-wells from hanging around. And as you might suspect, Safety was another feature people look for in their neighborhoods. So those two complement each other quite well.

One of the items I hadn’t considered was street design. A good neighborhood, so the theory goes, has shorter, winding streets, as opposed to long, often active thoroughfares. The latter encourages people to find a short cut through your front yard to cut a few minutes off their commute – even more if they pick up the speed a bit. And yet, this Yin has its Yang. It seems the shorter streets lead to the proliferation of “rolling stops.” For some reason, a few of my fellow Congressians found this minor traffic indiscretion akin to heroin trafficking. I’m not sure I’d put that much emphasis on it, but I can see their point from a safety perspective.

But just as Dr. Frank had to crank his creation up to capture that bolt of lightning, so too do Frisco neighborhoods need a spark to take them from being a pleasant collection of houses into a community. The consensus of the Congress of Neighborhoods seemed to be that Communication was just that catalyst. Whether it’s effective communication from the Home Owner’s Association to the residents, or just the ability to knock on your neighbor’s door, the more people can discuss things, the better the environment. Minor annoyances – a barking dog or a mis-parked car – don’t blossom into hillbilly-esque feuds. That late night party around the corner is a little more tolerable when you know that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Sadly, while good communication was at the top of the desirable list, it also rose to the top of the challenges list. How do you make sure everyone knows about the latest HOA meeting? How do you get neighbors talking across the fence? I’m fortunate to live among a group that prizes these things. We get together three or four times a year for a block party. We stand and chat in our front yards. We get together for a game of cards every once in a while.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your neighborhood, perhaps you should start right next door. The next time the neighbor’s out mowing the yard, stop over and say hello. Or if she’s hauling a big load of groceries up the driveway, offer to lend a hand. Just like the wacky doctor discovered, a little spark can add some real life to a collection of parts.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Decoration Decisions Branch in Many Directions

It’s an interesting odor, the combination of pine trees and diesel fuel. It reminds me of a truck stop in the High Sierras. But this was the heart of North Texas, without a Douglas Fir for miles.

On this night, a semi-truck wound its way through Frisco Square to the small plot of land cleared the weekend before by a hundred pairs of eager hands. Flood lights hung from constructed poles. Empty stakes marched in neat ranks. Colored lights shed just the right touch of seasonal cheer.

It’s Christmas tree time, and the Boy Scouts of Troop 51 are ready to provide Frisco-ites (Friscoans?) with everything from a four foot Douglas Fir to a fifteen foot Scots Pine.

A quaint little tradition, the Christmas tree. Co-opted from the pagan rituals of northern Europe, it has little to do with the folks around Bethlehem that form the basis of the Christmas celebration. Which may explain why some families opt for a Hanukkah bush at this time of year. Others find comfort in a Solstice Shrub. Whatever you put in your home, there are a few important controversies that must be addressed.

Alright, let’s get the biggie out of the way first, shall we? Real or Fake? Some folks are happy to go out and buy a new tree every year, lugging it home only to watch the needles start to pile up on the floor within a couple of hours. Others forgo the scent of pine, while enjoying the simplicity of pulling the plastic tree out of its box and popping it up like an umbrella. Ambiance versus convenience. Me? I’ll take convenience any day.

Now, where to put the tree? In years past, the only spot most families had to put their tree was smack dab in the middle of the living room. That would be the old-fashioned living room, where people actually lived. These days, most Frisco homes have a mis-labeled “formal living room” which usually contains a variety of furniture, but is rarely actually occupied. This makes a nice spot for a “tree shrine,” but it doesn’t do much to generate Christmas cheer.

Next up: lighting. Growing up, our trees always had a hodge-podge of lights scattered around. Depending upon how enthusiastic my dad was that year, we might have one strand of single color bulbs stuck in there, or a clump of color in one area. These days I prefer a more monochromatic look. “All white” is the look for me. Somehow I think it captures the glow of a bright moon glinting off new fallen snow.

What about your tree topper? Angel or star (5 or 6 pointed, depending upon your rabbinical persuasion)? Years ago, my mother gave me an antique tree topper from her native Bavaria. It’s neither an angel nor a star. In fact, it kind of defies description, other than, as my then 4 year old put it, “that pointy, sparkly thing.”

I suppose tastes change over the years. But with Christmas trees, it seems tradition is king. Look at a picture of a tree from 1900 and chances are it’ll look a lot like the one standing in your home. But there have been a few notable (if forgettable) trends. I recall as a child dreading putting up the tree because that meant decking it with those silver tinsel strands. And Mom was a stickler for making sure hung each one separately… no clumping up! Then, there was that brief fling with “flocking.” People longing for a snow covered Tannenbaum could have their tree covered in a white… something. And then there was that late 60’s fling with aluminum trees. (shudder)

Whatever your tastes, the time has come to deck the halls. Whether you celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanza or the Solstice, surely a little greenery can put a bit of nature in your holiday d├ęcor.

Boy Scout Troop 51 tree lots are located in front of Frisco Square and on Preston Road, just north of Stonebrook Parkway. They’ll be open evenings and weekends until the 9pm most nights until December 21st (or when all the trees are gone). View their website at http://www.friscotroop51.org.

Friday, November 14, 2008

10 Reasons I Love Living in Frisco Texas

My dad came to town last week. This in and of itself isn’t notable, though it’s the first time he’s visited in the 9 years we’ve lived in Frisco. No, the surprise came when he announced that he’d like to look at houses while he was down.

Born and bred in the scenic grandeur of the Pacific Northwest, my father is now thinking of relocating to dry, treeless North Texas. Granted he spent several years in this area during his time in the military, but I never imagined him spending his golden years among the sagebrush and wheat fields of the Great Plains.

So that got me thinking. I’m pretty happy here in Frisco. What is it about this area that makes it such a great place to hang my hat (10-gallon or otherwise)? After some consideration I came up with the following list of the 10 things (in no certain order) I like most about living in Frisco:

Curtsinger Elementary, Wester Middle School and the entire FISD – As with many of our fellow transplants, one of the reasons my wife and I chose Frisco was its exemplary school system. We haven’t been disappointed. Even with the rapid rate of growth we’ve experienced, FISD has kept pace and maintained a quality learning experience.

Pizza Hut Park and FC Dallas – I’m a sports nut, so I was thrilled when they broke ground on Pizza Hut Park. Soccer may not be my favorite sport, but I’ve learned to appreciate it a lot more following the Hoops.

Honorable mention: The Roughriders, the Thunder, the Tornados, the FFL. (See: Nut, Sports)

New Restaurants every month! – If I’m not watching sports, chances are I’m dining out. Okay, that’s not exactly true. Mrs. Line is a dandy chef, and I’m not too bad myself. But we both love checking out the latest eateries in the area. And this year has seen a spectacular boom in the number of unique (read: not a national chain) choices. My favorite this week? Coach Joe’s. Try the Buffalo Chicken sandwich.

George Purefoy and the City Councils (past and present) – Frisco, and exurbs like it across the country, face a unique challenge. Population growth can quickly outpace infrastructure development. But if you try to anticipate the growth, and the pattern shifts, you’re left with underutilized resources, while necessary services can’t be built. Fortunately for us, we’ve had some pretty savvy folks at the helm over the years. For the most part, we’ve gotten the roads and schools we need when we’ve needed them. And there aren’t many examples of city investments that have gone unused. So all in all, hats off to City Manager George Purefoy and numerous elected officials over the years who have kept us on the right track.

Our community and neighborhood parks – I recently took a walk through one of the “older” parks in town: Shawnee Trails. While it’s certainly showing some age, it’s still a very nice facility. The fact that many people complain about it has a lot to do with the fact that they’re comparing it to Warren Park, Bacchus Park and our newest gem, BF Phillips. We’ve got some really great community parks around that meet the recreation needs of a HUGE youth population. Beyond that, almost every neighborhood contains a smaller park, most of which are heads and shoulders above those I grew up with. Some may gripe that we spend too much on our parks, but I think they add greatly to our quality of life in Frisco.

No shortage of Banks! – Drive down Preston Road. Swing stick. Hit bank. Repeat.

The Frisco Library – I think libraries are possibly the third or fourth greatest invention in human history (I’m still weighing the whole sliced bread thing). Imagine a place where you can go browse through shelf after shelf of novels, references, autobiographies, and just about any other kind of printed material in existence. But our library is so much more than that. It’s a place to meet. A place to research. A place to learn. I’ve spent time in libraries all over the nation, and this one stacks up to any of them.

Poker night – After several years and attempts, we finally have a core group of guys that gets together every other week for a game. Some nights the conversation is controversial and heated. Others we just sit back and tell stupid jokes (ask Bryan about his prom date). But mostly, it’s a time to share the company of friends. Oh… and play some cards. For fun. Not for money. That would be illegal.

The Folks – At the end of the day, it’s really about the people. Ask 20 Texans what they like about living here - or 42 Yankees why they like visiting - and chances are most of them will comment on how friendly the people are. And it’s true. Whether I’m out shopping or just driving through the neighborhood, rarely does a day go by in Frisco without getting a smile and a wave from people I know, or don’t know.

So that’s the short list. I’d love to hear from you on the things that make Frisco your home. Visit the Frisco Line’s blog and submit your favorite things. Or, just drop me a note to say “Howdy.” It’s a Texas thing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pleading to a Jury of Your Peers

The defendant makes her way to the bench, a petulant look on her face. The judge swears her in, then turns the proceedings over to the council for the state. He gets to his feet and addresses the jury with some simple words about paying attention to the facts and rendering a fair verdict. Then it’s the defense’s turn.

It’s a scene that’s played out in thousands of courtrooms across the United States every day. The American Judicial System in action. The verbal jousting of opposing council. A jury of one’s peers. But on this night in Frisco, Texas, one significant thing is different.

Only a handful of people in the courtroom are over the age of 18.

This is Teen Court. But make no mistake, this is still a court, with the full weight of the Collin County Court system and legal code behind it. Defendants are represented by council. They’re prosecuted by “district attorneys” and the cases are heard by an impartial jury. Participants are youths between 13 and 18 years old from Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Plano and other parts of Collin County. There’s a dress code for everyone involved. If a defendant shows up in a tee shirt, they’re likely to be sent home to change into more appropriate garb. After all, according to the information sheet shared with all defendants, “The business of the court is not casual. Your attire should not be either.”

Unlike regular courts, in Teen Court they’re not concerned with determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence. That’s because they’ve already entered a plea of “Guilty” or “No Contest” in a Municipal or Justice of the Peace courtroom, and a sentence has been handed down. Teen Court merely gives them the opportunity to plead their case in front of a jury that really is made up of their peers. Some of the participants in Teen Court were once defendants themselves, since one of the punishments the jury can hand down is that defendants must serve on a future Teen Court jury.

And that’s the attraction of Teen Court. Many teens feel that adults just don’t “get it.” Ignoring for a moment the fact that all we thirty- and forty-somethings were once teens ourselves, it’s true that we’ve probably changed a bit since then. When a sentence is passed by another group of teens, many of whom have sat on the other side of the room, it’s hard to argue that they don’t feel some empathy.

So the courts will set aside the judgment of the adults and let the youths decide. As with other courts, juries have their guidelines. Depending on the severity of the offense, they can assign a range of community service, from 4 to 48 hours. Along with one or more stints on upcoming juries, the defendant is always assigned a 500-word essay on their experience with Teen Court. Beyond that, juries can get creative. Does the offense involve fighting? Send ‘em to anger management counseling. Vandalism? Make ‘em scrub some walls. Pretty much anything within reason is fair game.

Naturally, the Teen Court is overseen by a group of adults. The judge is often a volunteer judge or lawyer working in the area. Several others offer their time to coordinate the cases, get signatures and act as the bailiff. Running the entire program is Shirlane Grant, a professional appointed by the Colin County Court system. “Teen Court is an ideal program designed for young people, giving them the opportunity to get involved and learn about county government and the judicial system,” commented Ms. Grant. “This is where you will find ‘real teens delivering real justice for real crimes.’ Teen Court is also designed as a first offender program and this works both ways, it helps to prevent teen offenders from being repeat offenders and it also diverts young people from becoming first offenders.”

In a time where stories of moly-coddled kids are plentiful, it’s refreshing to see some of them taking a direct role in the system. Granted, many of them are there fulfilling their own sentences. But many more volunteer as part of their civic responsibility. One such volunteer, Ms. Bailey McNary, an eighth grader at Frisco’s Wester Middle School, had this to say about her experience with Teen Court: “I thought it was really cool that kids were deciding the punishment for kids. I was surprised by how much time we actually took to decide each case.” As a result of her experience, Ms. McNary is now considering pursuing a career in law when she moves on to high school and beyond.

Many would claim that the last thing this world needs is more lawyers. But take a look at the people who make Teen Court work and you’ll see that not all legal eagles are turkeys.

To find out more about Teen Court, including how to volunteer, visit their website at http://www.co.collin.tx.us/teencourt.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Nice Work, if You Can Get It

I have a business opportunity for you. Wait, wait. Don’t turn the page. This isn’t Amway, Pampered Chef, Southern Living at Home or any of the dozens of network marketing programs out there. (Oh wait. Maybe it is. More on that in a bit.)

No, this is a regular business, with a couple of interesting twists. First of all, you don’t have to produce anything. Somebody else does that for you. Nor do you have to deliver a product. They’ve got people lined up to do that as well. There’s no inventory to stock. And you won’t ever run into a problem with a lack of demand. All you have to do is market this product to people and take their money. Pretty much basic, good-old-fashioned American business.

But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more. Once you sign up customers, you get to set the price for the product AFTER they consume it. That’s right… they gobble up your goods and you get to send them a bill every month with a fee that can go up or down without any notice. What controls the fee? That’s the beautiful part. Nobody really knows. There are several sources for your product, so if any of them raise their rates, you can raise yours, regardless of whether you’re actually buying much from that supplier.

Sounds like quite the racket, huh? You’d think there’d be some government agency that oversees this business and keeps them in line, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right. There is an entity that was created pretty much exclusively to monitor this business. But, since 2002, they’ve been relegated to the sidelines as a spectator.

I am, of course, talking about the power business here in the Great State of Texas. Since the legislature passed Senate Bill 7 six years ago, the electricity business has been “deregulated.” That means anybody can jump into the market as a Retail Electricity Provider, or REP. There are only a handful of companies generating power. And an even smaller number that actually deliver electricity to the TV, microwave, iMac and other life-sustaining devices in your home. But there are dozens of REPs in Texas. At last count, twenty-seven are offering their services to the residents of Frisco.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Just what “services” do these REPs provide in return for their fees? So far, the only service I’ve seen from my provider is sending me bills with ever-increasing rates. Back in 2002, my wife and I decided that we wanted to be “environmentally conscious” (aka suburban guilt complex), so we signed up for one of the “green” providers when they entered the market. We took it at their word that the energy we were using was being generated by “clean” sources. Of course, since they were buying energy on the open market, there was really no way to be sure. But as far as services, the only thing I got from them was an incredibly confusing “even payment” plan that had me cutting hefty checks year-round, rather than gargantuan ones in July and August.

Then, last year, a good friend approached me with a “new business opportunity.” Yep, those buzzwords had me running for the closet. But it turned out I didn’t have to hold home “electro-parties” to enjoy the low, low rates. So I switched. Nine months later, I’m having second thoughts. (Good thing I didn’t do something silly like signing a two-year contract.) Again, I’ve received no particular “service” from my new provider. What I did get was a rate that went up almost 80% in 7 months. I’d had enough, though, when I saw that their current advertised rate was 40% lower than the one they’d charged me.

Now they had a chance to provide some service. I put a high premium on customer service. Any organization with whom I choose to do business is held to a high standard, particularly those whose only REAL product is their service. Unfortunately, when I phoned their help line, nobody could adequately explain why (1) my rate went up with no notice or (2) new customers would be paying less than me. A few more calls, and some pushing by my “energy consultant” (the friend who sold me on this system) and I’m told I’ll receive a credit on my next bill.

I’m told I could have avoided those price increases if I had “locked in” a rate, by signing a long-term agreement. That is true. But before I lock myself into a relationship with a company, I like to find out how they treat me should things go wrong. In this case, the jury is still out.

So, I’m going to hit the Public Utility Commission’s web site (www.powertochoose.org) and start scoping out some other options. Clearly, the electric business is no spectator sport. You have to get engaged. Keep an eye on energy prices. Sign up for long term contracts when the market is right, or switch providers if the situation warrants. With a little effort - and energy - you should be able to stay ahead of the game. And that is good business.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pop Goes the Shotgun

All around the metroplex,

the hunters chase the birdies.

Even on a Sunday morning…

POP! goes the shotgun.

Yes, Frisco residents, it’s that time of year once again. In case you haven’t noticed (and how could you miss it) dove hunting season opened at the beginning of September. That means for the next few weekends, every patch of open ground from here to Luckenbach is going to be infested with camo-clad, shotgun-wielding, good ole boys (and gals) hell bent on bagging their limit of these innocuous avians.

You wouldn’t think that the hunting patterns of Hunterous Texicanas would make much difference to us city-dwellers. And up to a few years ago, you’d be right. But in 2005, those sages of legislative imagination in Austin saw fit to over-ride municipal restrictions on gun play within city limits, as long as it’s on a certain 10-acre (or 50-acre for handguns and rifles) parcel of land. Given the number of undeveloped tracts of land in Frisco, this ensures that your fall mornings are punctuated with the popcorn-like exclamations of 20-gauge birdshot.

Now, before we go any further, let me state that I’ve spent some time traipsing across Texas in camouflage. (Not that I’ve ever actually shot anything. But that’s another story.) I can respect the desire to get out into the open spaces, pit yourself against nature and bring home a little extra meat for the dinner table. (Very little meat, in this case. Have you seen the size of those birds? It would take half a dozen just fill out the chicken nuggets in a Happy Meal!)

That said, I do have a problem with hunters plying their trade blocks away from downtown Frisco. It turns out that some 10-acre plots sit right next to residential developments and, in at least one case, a day-care facility. If hunters follow the proper protocols, nobody’s life is in any serious danger. The law stipulates that hunters must be 150 feet from the property boundary to shoot. Given the effective range of a typical bird-hunting shotgun, that should preclude any errant shots from doing damage along the perimeter. But residents and businesses around town are complaining about finding birdshot strewn around their patios, furniture and parking lots. This is, in itself, a violation of the law. Regardless of setbacks or parcel size, it is illegal to discharge a firearm if the projectiles would land on somebody else’s property.

While life and limb are in no real danger from a scattering of birdshot – or even the heavier buckshot – rifles are another story. These, too, are now legal to use within the city on any parcel over 50 acres (we have a few of those, as well). Again, there’s a restriction on the distance a hunter must be from the property line: in this case, a whopping 300 feet. And while a shotgun isn’t likely to do much damage after fifty yards or so, a 30.06 bullet still packs a lethal wallop up to a quarter mile and beyond.

So once again we see a conflict arising from the urbanization of Texas’ open space. It seems every year there’s another example of development encroaching on space where Texans were once free to roam. I’m all for protecting property owners’ rights; particularly where those owners have held their land for much longer than most of Frisco even existed. But we have to recognize the reality of suburban growth and balance public safety against the limitation of certain of those rights. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to see that sooner or later someone or something is going to get hurt by errant ammunition. We can only hope the damage is limited to some buckshot taking out a window or two.

Meanwhile, Frisco isn’t going anywhere. In fact, despite the recent “hiccup” in the economy, it’s going to keep getting bigger. Let’s hope our legislators recognize the inherent danger of this situation and allow local governments to regain regulation of firearms within city limits.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Keep the Rules Simple

Soccer’s a wonderful game for so many reasons. The athleticism, the ebb and flow of the game, the ability to see a live, professional –level game without taking out a third mortgage on your house just for nosebleed seats. But the thing that makes soccer great is the simplicity of the rule book. Unlike so many American traditions like baseball and football, soccer doesn’t load up the books with a bunch of “you must do this and you must do that” rules. Instead, it uses a much simpler proscription: you can’t touch the ball with your hands. Everything else is up to your imagination. Headers, chest bumps, how-the-heck-did-he-do-that bicycle kicks. These innovations grew out of the simplicity of the rules.

To me, that’s one of the criteria for effective legislation. Don’t try to fill the law books with specifics of what you can do. Instead, prohibit actions that are clearly undesirable (killing, running red lights, cheering for the New York Yankees) and leave the rest up to the individual.

With the recent dust up over the Stonebriar Home Owners Association’s rule against pick-trucks in the driveway, I took the opportunity to re-familiarize myself with my own HOA’s rule book: the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions declaration. (Okay, I’ll come clean. This is the first time I’ve actually read them.) Thankfully, I found that Plantation Resort 2 has no such silly restrictions on the ubiquitous “Texas Cadillac.”

Instead, it bans Sport Utility Vehicles. That’s right; your shiny Chevy Suburban is vehicula non grata in PR2. The rule, you see, is worded from an “inclusive” perspective. “No vehicles or similar equipment shall be parked or stored in an area visible from any street except…” and then it goes on to list the four types of vehicles the authors found acceptable; in this case, passenger automobiles, passenger vans, motorcycles and pick-up trucks. A strict interpretation of this rule would exclude Hummers, Suburbans, Excursions and other SUVs. And what about a panel van used in your home business? Or that cool, three-wheeled Moped I’ve got my eye on. Sadly, the way the rule is written would allow an over-zealous HOA board to embark on a crusade against any of these modes of transportation.

Further perusal of the document reveals that the gas cook-top which was so instrumental in the decision to buy my house is, in fact, prohibited. The CC&R clearly states: “Except within fireplaces in the main residential dwelling and except for outdoor cooking, no burning of ANYTHING shall be permitted anywhere within the project.” (Caps added.)

Now, set aside for a moment any snide comments you may have heard from Mrs. Line about my cooking talents, or lack thereof. My cook-top clearly burns natural gas to provide heat for my culinary excursions. Based on the rule above, that’s a no-no. And those dandy little chiminea’s that lend such a southwest flair to our expansive Texas porches? Right out.

Both of these rules were written a number of years ago. The date on the original declaration was 1992, but I suspect the rules were likely copied from an even older document. And that exposes the danger of trying to legislate by “inclusion” rather than “exclusion.” Had the vehicle rule been written to exclude those vehicles which were considered undesirable (broken down cars, dilapidated jalopies, anything produced by American Motors Corporation from 1970-1978) then today’s innovations wouldn’t be a problem. Likewise, if the ban had been placed on burning materials outside of constructed fireplaces or kitchen equipment, my kids could still enjoy their marshmallow roasts without aiding and abetting the criminal classes.

The good news, in this case, is that CC&Rs were designed to be changed. A simple two thirds majority of my fellow homeowners is all it takes to correct these and other issues (what do you mean I can’t dry my clothes in the back yard?!?). I even dropped by my HOA board meeting the other night and volunteered to help rewrite the document. Now all we have to do is convince over 700 homeowners to show up to a meeting in May to ratify the changes. If we can pull that off, I’m taking a shot at the bicycle kick next!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

HOAs: Oversite or Overrun?

I have friends from across the political spectrum. I play poker with a true libertarian; Thomas Paine’s “The government is best which governs least,” pretty much sums up his mantra. On the other side, an old car-pool buddy falls just short of Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” My viewpoint falls somewhere within that vast chasm, depending on the day of the week and the price of gasoline at the pump.

But regardless of political leanings, one thing most of us agree on is that we’ve got more than enough layers of government in our lives. Federal, State, County, City. They should be able to get things done, right? Well maybe so, but we residents of Frisco – and most other modern suburban communities – voluntarily add an additional layer of civic oversite: the Home Owner’s Association. In fact, about 95% of Frisco homes lie within the bounds of an HOA. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re a fact of suburban life.

HOAs are usually created as a mechanism to fund and support the common areas in a neighborhood. When builders come in and divide up a plot of land, they like to add features such as pocket parks, green belts and those ubiquitous neighborhood pools, to make their homes more attractive to the buyers. Once the development is complete, someone has to take care of these features. So the builders form an HOA and pass along that responsibility to the future home owners.

HOAs are headed up by residents of the neighborhood and handle things like communication, deciding which flowers to plant and organizing neighborhood events. But the real power of the HOA lies in its bylaws, which are established when the HOA is formed and everyone who lives within the HOA agrees to live by. This includes not only the original members, but anyone who buys a home within that neighborhood any time in the future. Yet, many home buyers don’t bother to read these documents before they buy.

If you want to see what kind of control your HOA has, take a look at a document called the “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” or some variation thereof. Restrictions can range from what kind of trees, shrubs and landscaping you can use on your lot, up to what kind of buildings you can have in the back yard or what color you can paint your house. I was surprised to find that my HOA had the final say on what kind of shingles I could use to repair my roof. I’m sure my surprise was dwarfed by Jim Greenwood, a resident of Frisco’s Stonerbriar neighborhood – and presumably, a member of their HOA. He was notified that his HOA deemed his new Ford F-150 pickup truck as unsightly. The Lincoln Navigator up the street was okay. Even the Chevy Avalanche (go figure). But his “Texas Sports Car,” he was told, would have to be kept in the garage.

For a government agency – or HOA – to have an impact on your life, they have to have some control over what you do. Cities can fine you, tax you or throw you in jail. HOAs don’t have the last option, but they can certainly do the first two. They may not call it a “tax,” but your HOA dues are certainly a form of taking some of your hard-earned dollars and using it for the common good. That sounds like a tax to me. And fines are the tool of choice for HOAs to impose their will on residents. Is your yard getting a bit out of control? That’ll be fifty bucks. Haven’t painted in a while? $75, please. Late with your dues? Cha-ching. I’ve seen cases where fines and levies have added up to thousands of dollars. What happens if you don’t pay? Legal action is, of course, one option. But HOAs have a better tool. They file a lien against your property, effectively barring you from selling it until you pony up. In Texas, they even have the ability to foreclose on your home, though this power is rarely used.

The good news and bad news about HOAs is that the decision on how strictly to enforce the provisions of the CC&R documents lies in the aforementioned Board of Directors. These folks are usually elected by a pitiful minority of residents who show up for the annual elections. So it’s not hard for a small group of people to gain control of the board. In a recent example, a group of residents in the Frisco Fairways neighborhood exchanged some harsh words with their elected officials. Law suits and counter-suits were threatened and filed on both sides. Ultimately, they came to a settlement. But more interesting, some of the disgruntled residents ended up replacing existing board members at the next election. A perfect example of “if you don’t like your politicians, become one yourself.”

Which is, I guess, the point. Whether we’re talking about your local neighborhood, the city or the country, our system is built on the concept of citizens getting involved. Too often, people spend their time complaining about how the government did this, or the city didn’t do that or the HOA slapped a lien on my property. But too few actually step up to serve on their HOA board, or run for city council. Whatever your political philosophy, this fundamental concept is key. More government or less, it only works when you get involved.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Community Development is a Balancing Act

My wife, Mrs. Line, often reminds me that it never hurts to ask for something you want. So, in that spirit, I have the following request: Who would like to build a swimming pool in my back yard?

Now, before you make the meteoric leap to negativity laced with profane epithets, let me state my case. I’m a tax-paying citizen of Frisco. Getting to the existing public water park is just not convenient for me. So wouldn’t it be a valid use of our tax dollars to build an amenity I could more readily use? I certainly wouldn’t hog it. You can come over any time you like and take a dip!

Okay, that’s a bit absurd. So let’s change the equation. Who wants to build a pool for 90,000 of Frisco’s residents? Considering that there are around 100,000 folks that call Frisco home, that would certainly rise higher on the public’s “cost/benefit” calculator. In fact, I’d bet that most residents (and their elected representatives) would vote for a facility that served such a high percentage of the population. (And I’d win that bet, since just such an election led to the development of the new Athletic Center and its indoor/outdoor waterpark.)

Now let’s slide down the slippery slope. What if the pool only served 60,000 people? 20,000? How about 5,000? 20? You get the picture. Where is the magic number that says a public works project must serve X% of the population before we spend tax money on it?

This is far from an academic exercise. This is exactly the kind of decision that gets made – and often second-guessed – on a daily basis at all levels of government. As a member of Frisco’s Community Development Corporation board of trustees, I and my fellow board members are frequently called upon to make these kinds of calls. Should we fund the next community park on the west side of town or the east? Should we pay for more baseball fields, or divert the resources to soccer pitches? Do we want to spend tax dollars on a dog park or a skate park?

Each of these decisions comes down to balancing the cost against the amount of benefit city residents expect to receive. In the case of the ball fields, we can get a pretty good idea of the benefit (and demand) by looking at the participation in the Frisco Baseball and Softball Association, the Frisco Soccer League and other organizations. But when it comes to a skate park, how many teenage kids are likely to take advantage of such a facility? Are there enough dog owners to justify building them their own playground?

The CDC is responsible for investing a half a percent of every sales tax dollar in improvements for the city. We’re a primary source of funding the city uses to build community parks like Frisco Commons, Warren, Bacchus and the new B.F. Phillips. We talk a lot in our meetings about maintaining a “quality of life” in Frisco. Of course, that’s a difficult concept to define. The term “family friendly” comes up frequently, but given the wide variety of “families” in Frisco, even that’s not a touchstone we can easily get our arms around. You hate to boil every discussion down to a numbers game like the one I just described, but often that’s the only quantitative guideline available. And if you don’t think quantitative measurements are important in government, you haven’t been to a city council meeting lately, have you?

To assist us in our deliberations, the CDC is refining our decision criteria. We’ve outlined certain areas of focus that align with the City Council’s priorities for Frisco and will use these to guide us as investment opportunities come our way. We’ll be publishing more about that on the city web site in the coming months (www.friscotexas.gov). Of course, you’re also welcome to join us at our meetings on the third Thursday of every month and see just how we do things. With as much criticism as we hear on how tax dollars are spent, it’s disappointing how rarely people drop by to see us work. Take a look at the city web site to find the time and location of the next meeting and drop on by. We’d love to have you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll put together a pitch for the next city council meeting and see what I can do about getting my pool built. Hey, it never hurts to ask, right?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Friendly FACTs Fix Frisco Fences

Good fences make good neighbors: a tried and true adage that can be taken any number of ways. Metaphorically, it suggests that establishing clear boundaries makes sure that everyone knows and respects our personal space and rights. Taken literally, it means that I don’t have to put up with the guy next door’s dog pushing over the fence into my yard, making it darn near impossible to grow grass on that side of the house!

Taking the concept one step further, I’d add that good lawn care indicates just as good a neighbor. You spend a couple of hours every week toiling over your small (or not so small) plot of earth to make it look inviting and pastoral. Your own little slice of suburban bliss. Then the yahoo across the street decides that the high cost of gas justifies not mowing for three weeks. And as much as he may think otherwise, a dandelion is NOT a “decorative flower.” There ought to be a law.

Guess what? There is. In fact, there are several. Frisco is stacked with ordinances designed to ensure a pleasant environment and bolster our property values. “Dilapidated fences” and “tall vegetation” are but two of the nuisances that our city Code Enforcement Division lists as being critical to “protecting the health, safety and welfare of the City of Frisco.” (That’s a quote right from the city web site. Check it out at www.friscotexas.gov, then search for “Code Enforcement.”) Other menaces include illegal sign placement (had enough of the stacks of garage sales signs at the corner every weekend?), debris or other nuisances (presumably, this would cover the abandoned sofa with the oh-so-attractive floral print that’s been sitting on the curb for a week), and substandard or dangerous structures (that do-it-yourself shed sure looked good at Home Depot 3 years ago!).

The challenge? Well, it seems that the code enforcement people don’t have the resources to track down and prosecute these perpetrators of civil dilapidation. After all, there are only so many hours in a day and they have a limited staff. So they, like many cities, rely on citizens to fill up their day planners with reports of violations great and small. Phone numbers, e-mail addresses and even a physical address are provided for you to turn state’s evidence against your fellow Friscoans when they step out of line.

This is fine for those chronic abusers of public decorum. Get them to clean things up or slap a fine on ‘em. But chances are, most of the violations you or I might note around the city are not the product of malicious intent. No, it may just be that the reason I haven’t mowed my lawn in a while is that my mower broke and the local fix-it shop has a 45-day backlog on getting it repaired. In cases like this, a friendly reminder (and the suggestion of an able-bodied youngster in the area looking to make some extra spending cash) would do far more good than getting the authorities involved.

That’s the goal of the new Frisco Assistant Code Team. Created by the Code Enforcement department, FACT is a program that trains volunteers throughout the city to recognize code violations in their neighborhoods. Instead of escalating every issue to the Code Enforcement Officers, team members issue “courtesy notices” indicating the problem and, if possible, suggesting a solution. The hope is that these polite reminders coming from neighbors will compel people to remedy the situation without resorting to “official” action. If things aren’t taken care of, the case can be escalated properly.

At first blush, this new system seemed a bit too “Big Brother” for me. Code Enforcement Administrator, Greg Carr, suggests that “FACT members cannot consider their personal opinions when leaving courtesy notices on their neighbors’ doors.” Yeah. Good luck with that. Any time you get citizens involved in policing their fellow residents’ behavior, biases are going to creep in and tempers are going to flare. Just ask anybody who’s ever served on a home owner’s board. You can have the best of intentions, but criticize how someone trims his shrubs and the peaceful tranquility of your cozy cul-de-sac can be shattered in seconds.

Time will tell whether FACT’s polite notices have a positive impact on the condition of our neighborhoods, or just become another piece of paper piled on a foreclosed home’s doorstep. We all want to live in a place where everyone takes responsibility for their own space. But sadly, the reason we have fences – and FACTs – is because we need them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Traversing Commuting Options

I used to joke about the difficulty of my daily commute. The 30-second trip from the coffee pot to my home-office desk was fraught with obstacles. Those 30 seconds could easily stretch to a full minute if I had to dodge a pile of toys, hop over the dog, or grab a kiss from one of the kids dashing out to school. If I spilled some of the coffee, I might not get to the office for a full 15 minutes! Even the worst traffic jam on the Dallas North Tollway wouldn’t increase your commute by 2900%!

Sadly, I had to give up the full-time, telecommuting life style last year. I returned to the world of real, physical commuting in November. Compared to many of my fellow Frisco residents, the 30 minutes it takes me to get down Coit Road to Forest Lane is fairly reasonable. Heck, some people take that long just to get down El Dorado to the Tollway. Even so, some days I really dread spending precious time fighting traffic and listening to inane chatter on the morning radio shows. But that’s one of the trade-offs I accepted when I chose to live in an ex-urb like Frisco.

What I didn’t bargain for 9 years ago – or even last year – was $4 per gallon fuel costs. The financial hit to our family budget has been tough to swallow. And it’s led me to start looking for other alternatives to making the solo drive every morning. I’ve investigated getting a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or even a motorcycle. But the payback period for either is years away, compared to my paid-for Toyota. Car pools? My job makes keeping a regular schedule kind of tough. I leave for the office at the same time, but coming home is often an iffy proposition.

That leaves public transportation.

Oops. I live in Frisco. We don’t have public transportation. Right or wrong (and I largely believe it was right) Frisco chose to devote its sales tax revenue to economic and community development, rather than sending it to Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Which means I can’t just jump on the bus and ride. I have to drive to the nearest stop (Coit and Parker) and catch the bus there. For me, that’s actually a viable option. It’s a direct bus route down Coit, and then only a short walk to my office. But most of my fellow Frisco commuters don’t fare so well. For example, those wishing to take the light rail service to downtown face a 30-minute drive just to get to the nearest station, then another hour-plus on the train. The direct drive to downtown isn’t that much further, so I don’t expect many people are choosing this option.

There have been a number of suggestions offered in recent months to help address our commuting needs. One suggestion is to build a commuter rail line into Dallas. While this seems like a viable solution, it certainly isn’t going to happen soon. Another option has appeared in the form of purchasing limited transit services from DART. At a recent meeting, their board members were briefed on the idea of non-member cities, like Frisco, purchasing bus service on an ad-hoc basis. While the service would not be cheap, it could be implemented much more quickly than developing a new rail system. Plus, it could potentially serve a wider base of citizens than rail.

During the campaign, recently-elected councilman Scott Johnson suggested that, while we need better transit options, we need to focus as much energy on attracting the kinds of businesses to Frisco that will allow residents to work locally and avoid the commute altogether. This is certainly a laudable goal, and our Economic Development Commission (EDC) is doing everything in its power to make that happen. But again, this is a long-term solution and ignores the nature of Frisco as a prototypical suburban city. We’re always going to have a hefty portion of our population commuting to jobs in Dallas and other cities.

At the end of the day, we all have to decide whether the costs and inconvenience of commuting are worth the benefits of living in a community like Frisco. Over time, the cost of fuel will balance out; they still haven’t revoked the laws of supply and demand. And city leaders are working to develop a wide range of transit solutions, since there is no “one size fits all” magic genie. “Frisco is aggressively pursuing all avenues at this point,” commented Mayor Maher Maso. “There is nothing off the table.”

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for other alternatives. I’m going to test ride a Vespa scooter next week. And I’ve discovered books on CD, transforming my commute into an opportunity to catch up on my favorite mystery novels. It can’t beat working from home, but at least I arrive most days with a smile on my face.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Righting Wrongs Reveals True Nature

There are some sounds you never want to hear. The grating pitch made by the metal sunshade your son is dragging down the side of someone’s car is one example. Sure, it would have been easy to just ignore the damage and walk away. No one was around to witness the incident, right?

Wrong. There were witnesses. Three, to be exact: me, my daughter, and the aforementioned, spatially-challenged son. Could I, as a responsible parent, allow this to go unreported? Not if I ever wanted to hold the high ground in future ethical discussions. And with a 13-year-old, you KNOW there are going to be a few of those in our future. So, we left a note. The bottom line: it was the right thing to do.

This is just one of the moments that life gives us to teach by example. These lessons are rarely taught in the controlled environment of the classroom. Usually, it takes the messiness of reality to bring them home. Oddly, it seems my wife, Beverly, and I have had a number of these opportunities lately.

When the friendly, neighborhood traffic cop pulled Beverly over, she was sure she could slide out of it. She was on her way to church, after all. But she WAS speeding. And those same witnesses were sitting right next to her just waiting to sop up this latest “do as I say, not as I do” moment. So instead, she accepted the admonishment of the officer – along with a $100 speeding ticket – and went on her way.

But teaching moments don’t always end with the event. What we discovered was that follow-up is just as important as the incident.

A few days after the car-marring episode, we spoke to the owner. He got a couple of estimates for the repair and we were floored. Who knew that auto body repairs are following the same meteoric rise as the price of crude? (Oil-based paints, I guess.) My knee-jerk reaction was, “No way! We’re not going to pay that. Let ‘em sue us!” We even considered that perhaps the “victim” was looking for a way to cash in. But a little reflection convinced us that we did, indeed, need to make it right, whatever the cost. Doing the right thing ain’t always cheap.

Likewise, Beverly could have contested that speeding ticket, taking up the court’s time and hoping the officer wouldn’t show. But what kind of lesson would we be teaching then? “Take your lumps… unless it really hurts. Then it’s okay to try and weasel out of it.”

When all is said and done, honesty won’t always save you any money, and may even cost a bit more. But your conscience will be clean and your integrity intact. When you take the chance of being honest, you open yourself up to unexpected downsides. “No good deed goes unpunished,” is the old adage. But in the end, it boils down to karma. Live your life in a responsible, ethical manner, and your integrity will – more times than not ­­­– attract positive situations. If, on the other hand, you’re always looking for the angle, don’t be surprised if you find that folks around you are trying to pull a fast one on you, too.

Every situation is just bursting with teachable moments. Even when something less than pleasant crosses your path, look for an opportunity to set an example for those who look up to you. Congratulations! You’re a teacher! Or, are you the student?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Kicking the Summer Heat

It’s the bottom of the final inning. The home team is down by 2, with runners on second and third. Two outs. The pitcher stares down from the rubber with malice in his eyes. The wind up… the pitch… It’s a curve. The ball is popped up in the air just over second base. The center fielder dashes up to make the grab.

“No play!” comes the cry from the umpire. “The pitch was too bouncy. Strike three on the pitcher. Yer outta the game!” Pandemonium ensues.

A little league baseball game? No. Softball? Nope. This is the high-pressure world of neighborhood Kickball, as played in Frisco’s Duncan Park, near Curtsinger Elementary, once a month.

If you haven’t played kickball in a while, you should give it a try. It’s truly a game that equalizes the field between big brawny dads and their fourth-grade daughters. Trying to blast the ball over everyone’s head usually results in a pop fly that hangs in the air long enough to consult with the center fielder on the wind direction, grab a drink of water, then saunter over and catch the ball. Meanwhile, you can’t under estimate the difficulty of pegging a three-foot tall kid racing down the base path from 30 feet away with an oversized ball with a penchant for flying off at odd angles.

The Curtsinger Husband Community Kickball League (CHuCKLe) is the brain child of Bryan McNary (along with his wife, Darci, and their two daughters, Bailey and Kinsey). This outgoing, gregarious, database programmer – and self-professed “King of Kickball” - decided that he was tired of seeing people in the neighborhood that he didn’t know. He’d run into folks at school events, nod politely and move on. This wasn’t good enough. So Bryan started sending out invitations to come play kickball. It started out with a few close families but has now grown to include people from all over the Plantation Resort neighborhood. At the last event, Bryan rounded up over 30 moms, dads and kids of all ages. (Note: Members of the first two groups could also be included in the later, based on their behavior.)

Frisco suffers from the same malady that afflicts many bedroom communities. Parents get up in the morning and head off to their jobs, then spend their evenings in keeping up the household, helping with home work and other home-bound tasks. We rarely take the time to step outside and greet the people living around us. Throw in the ubiquitous rear-entry garages, and we may never even SEE our neighbors, much less greet them. I applaud any effort that brings us closer together as a community, even if it’s only for an hour or so once a month.

As we move into the hazy, lazy days of summer, I challenge all of my fellow Frisco-ites to find ways to get out and mingle with the folks in your neighborhood. Here in North Texas, most of us endure the summer months locked away in our air-conditioned homes. But it doesn’t take much to get out and scare up some activity. If necessary, wait until the evening hours when it cools off. I recall when we first moved to Frisco, we were invited to a block party around the corner. Now, nine years later, we’ve been getting together with the same group of people at least twice every summer. A couple of grills pulled into the street… some lawn chairs strewn about… Beverly’s famous “Texas Caviar.” These are the tastes of Texas summer that I hope my kids remember throughout their lives.

Oh and, by the way, if anyone thinks they’ve got what it takes to challenge CHuCKLe, bring it on!

Friday, May 30, 2008

When Does Growth Become a Bad Thing?

I’m having a little problem with growth. It seems that I, like many men of my age, have put on a few extra pounds around the middle. Dieting, exercise, positive thinking… I’ve tried them all, but over the years, the inexorable crawl from one belt hole to the next has continued.

Now, this isn’t a major issue… yet. I’m a big guy, but I can support the weight. The big problem comes when I try to button my trousers. You see, while I keep growing, the inanimate fabric of my clothing steadfastly refuses to keep pace. Something about it being a finite resource, I suppose.

Frisco may soon experience some of the same “growing pains.” Over the past few years, we’ve raced through the municipal equivalent of pre-adolescent growth spurts. Any parent of a middle-schooler can appreciate the challenge of keeping up with that kind of growth. You buy a pair of sneakers this week, only to find yourself back at Payless before the tread is even worn thin. In Frisco, just about the time that you get to drive on the newly-opened lane of fresh pavement, you realize that the street needs to be widened.

These constraints we can deal with. It certainly hits the pocketbook to shell out for a new pair of shoes or a four-lane expansion, but with a little belt tightening, you can still make ends meet. And as long as your income continues to grow, you’re probably going to do okay.

That’s one reason that cities and their politicians talk about “Growth” as such a great boon. If you’re not growing, you’re falling behind, right?! But when does growth become a bad thing?

Well, much like my reticent pants, there are some resources that just won’t keep up with Frisco’s expansion. The most obvious is water. A little over a year ago, we were stuck in a drought that had reservoirs at an all-time low. Last year’s higher-than-normal rainfall alleviated some of that shortage, but the water levels are already beginning to drop again. The North Texas Municipal Water District has a plan to try and keep up with the demand for water in our region, but most of it depends on creating new reservoirs and even buying water from our neighbors to the north. The former projects are mired in bureaucratic red tape and environmental concerns, while the Okies haven’t decided if their water is even for sale.

But even if these new projects do come on line as expected, dams don’t create water. At some point, our growth will outpace the ability of the land to support us. Don’t believe me? Take a quick trip west to Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. What was once a thriving community that spanned hundreds of square miles quickly disappeared when they outgrew the land’s capacity to provide. Can’t happen in these modern times? Don’t count on it.

Beyond water, there are other resources that will limit the number of people who can live in North Texas. There’s plenty of air, but we’re already straining its ability to clear out pollutants before we have to breathe them. Local food supplies are ample for now. But more and more we find ourselves relying on items produced further and further from home. Watch the impact of the recent rise in fuel prices on the cost of food and you’ll get a sense of the danger this reliance on distant growers presents.

The bottom line is that it is unrealistic to expect that we can continue to grow at anywhere near our current rate indefinitely. At some point, our city, region, state and country will have to deal with the concept of zero growth. How we do that – and when – is the tricky part. But any way you slice it, we’re going to have to wean ourselves from the concept that we can grow our way out of our problems. That doesn’t work with my waistline, and it won’t work with our city.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Local Politics Need to Color Outside the Lines

If you’re a political junkie in Frisco, (and I am) the last couple of months have provided plenty of fireworks. We saw wild claims and counter-claims from both sides of the late night liquor sales ordinance (strip clubs, economic booms). Ethics accusations were levied against a mayoral candidate. And if you had a few neighbors over for a springtime cookout, chances are good that one of the 14 candidates showed up stumping for votes. (I think I spotted three at my daughter’s birthday, but I didn’t look too closely at the clown’s makeup.) What originally appeared to be slim electoral pickings, bloomed at the filing deadline into a robust field of choices.

It all culminated in last Saturday’s election, where we collectively chose a new Mayor, one council member (the other seat will require a run off) and defeated the option to extend the sales of adult beverages beyond midnight on most nights. The two incumbent school board members were returned to their offices by a comfortable margin. And while some may have been surprised by certain results, it was pretty much a typical, small-town municipal election in North Texas.

Yet, I couldn’t help being struck by the monochromatic nature of the slate of candidates this year. I was Curious, I went back and scanned through the city charter. Sure enough, I wasn’t able to find anything restricting candidates to white, male, family men. In a year where the national election news is being dominated by non-traditional candidates, that’s what filled out the ballot for municipal office: white guy, white guy, Hispanic guy, white guy, black woman, white guy, white guy, white guy… you get the picture.

A 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau pegged the Hispanic population of Frisco at over 11,000 or roughly 13 percent. And yet a quick glance at the city council photographs adorning City Hall indicates none of that diversity in any city-wide elected position. Meanwhile, women make up just over half of the population. But, outside of the school board, only one woman now holds a city elected office. African-Americans? None.

Why are these constituencies so under-represented in Frisco? I spoke with council candidate Antonio Luevano to get his perspective. His theory is that the animosity kindled by the regional debate over illegal immigrants has discouraged our Hispanic citizens from getting active in local politics. If that’s the case, it’s a shame. There are certainly issues facing this growing community (jobs, affordable housing), but no strong leadership presence has stepped forward to address them. Mr. Luevano had the best of intentions, but his short residency in town put him at a significant disadvantage. He garnered only 5% of the votes. If Frisco’s Hispanic community wants its voice heard, it will need to find a more experienced candidate the next time around.

As for the dearth of women on the ballot, that comes as a bigger surprise. Frisco has a long track record of electing women to city office. Mayor Kathy Seei proudly served our community for 6 years and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the growth that followed. At least one woman has served on the city council for a number of years, with Joy West currently filling that role. And yet, in this election, only LeDella Levy represented her gender amongst the 10 city council and mayoral candidates, and she received the lowest vote tally of any of them.

I would never suggest that anyone vote for or against someone strictly based on their membership in one or another ethnic or gender category. There were ample other differences in the candidates on which to base a decision. Rather, I hope that this election cycle serves as a wakeup call to those constituencies which find themselves under-represented in Frisco City Hall. Municipal governments have far more impact on our day-to-day lives than any national office. Rather than expending excess energy on the HillyBama debate, cast your focus closer to home and get involved locally. Perhaps in the future, our elected representatives can better reflect the varied hues of our population.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Frisco Faces Rapid Aging Process

Are you the 100,000th resident of Frisco? We may never know exactly which person tipped the scale, but we do know that whoever you are, you moved to Frisco in April of 2008 to join the other 15,000-plus other folks that have moved here since 2006, and the 60,000 in the 6 years before that.

If you are new to Frisco, chances are you live in one of the brand-new subdivisions along the north side of town. You probably don’t remember a Frisco without Pizza Hut Park. Or the new City Hall and Library complex. Or Safety Town. Or Harold Bacchus park. Or any number of other improvements we’ve seen over the past few of years. Yes, Frisco is shooting up a lot like my 13-year-old son – and along with the growth spurts comes ample teenage growing pains.

Fast forward 15 years.

Neighborhoods are starting to show some age. The rapid-growing trees planted by cost-conscious developers are poking their roots through your yard – and possibly your home’s foundation. Streets are buckling in places, making for a bumpy ride through the neighborhood. The grass in the local park is wearing thin in places and non-existent in others. Rust is showing on the swing set. In short, we’re starting to show the civic equivalent of the middle-age bulge.

If you’d like a glimpse at how things might unfold, you don’t have to travel far. Indeed, you don’t have to leave town. In 1999, I moved into the Plantation Resort area in southeast Frisco. At the time, it was one of the gems of suburban development in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Now, less than 10 years later, some of those signs of age are setting in. And it’s not that local residents have let things go. We take a lot of pride in our neighborhood. But the ravages of time, as they say, are more powerful than the best intentions.

Frisco is going to face a unique challenge in the coming years. Because we’ve grown so quickly, we’re going to age just as fast. All of the facilities we’re opening now will start to show their own wrinkles and age spots. And the cost of maintaining and renovating our infrastructure is going to be steep. As our growth starts to flatten out - and even decline - we’ll have a harder time accessing funds through borrowing. To counter this problem, the city council established a Capital Reserve Fund. Built on today’s, relatively inexpensive money, this asset can be used over time to maintain and renovate facilities at a much lower cost. But while the mechanism is in place, we need to ensure that funding it continues to be a priority for future administrations.

Another challenge is keeping our eyes on the past while we develop the future. As we add new housing developments and retail space to fill in the corners of the city, we have to ensure that the mature areas receive some attention as well. It’s wonderful that parks and playgrounds are a staple of every new development, but some of our existing neighborhoods haven’t been so lucky. We didn’t have the cash to create such elaborate features back in 1995. Now that we do, development funds should flow to the older areas of town as well.

Rapid growth has provided Frisco with amenities that are the envy of cities throughout the region. But now is the time to plan for the day when we turn the corner from civic adolescence to municipal maturity.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Diversity Essential to City's Quality of Life

In the classic film, The Wild One, Marlon Brando’s character is asked, “Just what is it you’re rebelling against, Johnny?” His answer, delivered in a slow drawl just dripping with contempt is, “Whadya got?”

The little town Johnny and his “hep cat” bikers rode into was a quiet, comfortable place that only existed in the movies. By today’s gang standards motorcycle thugs were actually pretty mild. But as an alien influence, they really shook up the place.

Sometimes Frisco can feel a little like that mythical town, fittingly named “Wrightsville.” Face it, over the past couple of decades, we’ve been riding the crest of the wave. Some great foresight by our elected officials and city management has positioned Frisco as one of the hottest economic dynamos in Texas, if not the nation. When you look at the list of the top 20 cities in Texas in sales tax revenue, Frisco is one of only 3 with a population below 100,000 (Round Rock and Sugarland are the other two). This economic fuel has allowed us to build top-notch civic facilities, from our award-winning parks, to our unique Safety Town, and even our stately, new city hall.

Just like Wrightsville, Frisco projects an image of the traditional, midwestern home town. Every local politician trumpets our “Family Friendly” qualities. And to be sure, Frisco is a great place to raise the kids. As with many of my neighbors, the quality school system was one of the primary factors I considered when I moved to the area in 1999. Robust youth sports programs and great parks added to the mix.

But not every Frisco resident fits the “mom-pop-and-two-little-kids” mold. Take my friends John and Adele. They moved to Frisco to be near their son and grandkids. But they’re enjoying their retirement, rather than raising a family. Other than watching their granddaughters playing soccer, they’re unlikely to get much use from the acres of sports fields in town. Likewise, most of the neighborhood parks, with their playground fixtures, aren’t going to attract them.

Fortunately, we have built a number of services that are geared toward our older residents. The downtown Senior Center comes to mind. And many of our community parks include ample trails for walking, running and other outdoor activities.

Our younger residents – fresh out of high school or college, just starting their careers – aren’t quite as lucky. They, too, fall outside the bounds of the “family friendly” definition and probably don’t care much about the abundance of youth soccer fields. Some may consider having a family some day, but whether that is in Frisco or not is an open issue. And, of course, there are others who choose not to have a family at all. What services and features do we have in place that caters to these residents?

Virtually every candidate for civic office this year make note of supporting the family-oriented nature of Frisco. And that’s good. It’s certainly been a major factor in shaping our city. As we grow we need to protect those features that have made our city synonymous with quality living. At the same time, we should look for opportunities to create services and facilities that appeal to all members of the population. Yes, we may find ourselves investing in facilities that cater to a minority, or services that are focused on a smaller group. That’s okay, because whether they have kids or not, they’re still tax-paying citizens and deserve to benefit from the abundance that Frisco provides.

We don’t need a wild biker to shake up our little hamlet. But in our zeal to protect the family, let’s not overlook the diversity present in our population and the value that it brings to all of us.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Don’t Strip the Truth about Liquor Sales

Did you hear the one about the “strip joint” coming to Frisco?

It seems this is the bogyman that certain people in town love to trot out every time there’s an alcohol-related issue on the ballot. I recall in 2002 - when the beer/wine ordinance was being debated – a large sign popped up at a nascent construction site at the corner of Coit and 121. “Coming Soon!” the sign boasted, “Gentleman’s Club.” And I have to admit that I was recently involved in an “adults-only stripping” incident at that location… when I visited the doctor to have my back examined. Centennial Hospital is a far cry from Baby Dolls.

And that’s the problem I have with the way the upcoming “Late Night Hours” ordinance vote is being portrayed by its detractors. I spent some time perusing their website and couldn’t find a single cogent argument to support their position. Instead, they’re relying on what my industry calls “the FUD factor.” If you don’t have a strong position, spread Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt to discredit the other side.

Their home page shouts “Why risk it?” and then lists a litany of items that sound like they’re taken from the book of worldly ills. They even have an FAQ (what web site would be complete without one?) that lists a few other maladies that are likely to befall our “hamlet” if we have the temerity to allow people to drink for a couple extra hours. But here’s the disturbing part. Nowhere on the site do they include one shred of evidence to support any of their positions.

Now, when I took my high-school debate classes, that kind of arguing would have left me with a big fat “F” on my report card. I’m happy to say that I avoided that particular situation until my initial semester of college (c’mon, Fortran?!? Who needs to know that?). So let me present a few facts about this key issue to help clear the air. First and foremost, we have to consider the reason this issue came up in the first place. Frisco is a growing city, with a number of attractive features. But we’re competing for tax dollars with some better-established and better-known neighbors. And the current restrictions on “last call” put us at a disadvantage compared to cities like Plano and The Colony. Nowhere is this more evident than attracting conventions and other events. Bill Bretches, the general manager of the Embassy Suites hotel adjacent to the Convention Center, recently estimated that the loss of one such event could cost his establishment more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Next, there is absolutely no evidence that extended hours attracts strip clubs, honky-tonks or speakeasies. Those businesses tend to congregate in areas with a lot more traffic than our little suburb. Don’t believe me? Then please show me even one “gentleman’s club” in Plano.

Finally, it’s important to keep this issue in perspective. Current city ordinances allow businesses to stay open until one A.M. on Saturdays, and midnight any other night. So we’re only talking about adding a couple of hours each night. Hardly enough time to bring on global Armageddon, or to even hinder our quality of life. More significantly, the issue is likely to be moot in just a few years. Once the population of Collin county reaches 800,000, state liquor laws kick in, over-riding any city ordinances. With the current head count hovering around 730,000 it’s highly likely that we’ll hit that mark well before the next official Census. So is it really going to hasten the fall of western civilization if we pre-empt that by a couple of years?

With daily reminders of global warming, the terrorist threat and other global crises rampant in today’s media, we must all be vigilant for those who would debate matters of public policy armed with nothing but innuendo and logical fallacies. If you’re opposed to drinking after midnight, then by all means, don’t do it. And if you feel strongly enough about it, arm yourself with reasoned arguments and salient facts and wade into the fray of public discourse.

But don’t try to peddle uncertainty and doom just to scare us into conforming to your view of the world. I outgrew the bogyman in the first grade, and I’m betting that most Frisco voters did as well.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Race is On

On your marks. Get set. Go! Indeed, the race is on.

Last week marked the official deadline to file for any of the municipal seats up for election in May. And a last-minute flurry of activity ensured that we have a full slate of candidates for all of the offices. There are two candidates for Mayor, four for each of the city council seats and even a couple each for the open school board slots.

Now comes the hard part: you have to pick someone to vote for. (You ARE going to vote this May, aren’t you?) So how does the average citizen decide which horse to back in the big event? Which mayoral candidate gets the nod? Is there a council aspirant that shares your views on the future of Frisco? Should we return the sitting members to the school board, or is it time for a change? And just to round out the slate, you’ve got the whole “late-night liquor” referendum to deal with.

Unlike the two-year marathon that typifies our national election, municipal elections are more like the 100-yard dash. There’s not a lot of time between the filing deadline and election day. Early voting begins on the first of May, with the general election on the tenth. So you have about 6 or 7 weeks to identify the key issues, find out where each candidate stands and then weigh the pros and cons to arrive at a choice. So how do you find out which of the 14 candidates for city-wide office resonate with your personal views?

Local elections aren’t like the big races with their elephantine campaign war chests. The average city council candidate will spend in the lower “thousands” range. No high-dollar TV spots for these folks. You’re not likely to see any full-page ads in the newspaper, either. And it’s pretty hard to squeeze much information into a 2-foot-square lawn sign stuck in someone’s yard.

Bring on the Internet. The World Wide Web has made it efficient for anyone to express their views without breaking their budgets. For a very modest sum, every candidate can (and should) have their own web site where they can explain their views on a wide range of topics, from crime prevention, to city growth, to taxes, or whatever else is on their minds. Plus, they can let you know how to contact them, where they’ll be appearing and even what their favorite flavor of pudding is. One of the criteria I use to rate candidates is how well they present their views on their web site. No mamby-pamby soft-pedaling politicians for me. I like to see firm stands on key issues. (Hint for candidates: butterscotch or chocolate.)

How do you find the candidate’s sites? I’ll make it easy for you. I’ve published a (hopefully comprehensive) list of candidate websites on my blog: thefriscoline.blogspot.com.

Another online option is to visit Frisco’s own little corner of cyber-space: Frisco Online (www.frisco-online.com). This site operates an open forum where city residents can discuss everything from politics to that jerk in the white SUV that cut you off in traffic last weekend. Drop into the Politics and City Issues forum for a lively discussion on a wide variety of topics. They’ve even set up a specific area just to ask candidates questions.

If these sites don’t help, consider attending one of the myriad public events that will be presented between now and May. The Mayoral candidates are scheduled for three public debates, which are great opportunities to hear exactly where they stand. On top of these, look to see the candidates make an appearance at just about every civic event, home-owners meeting and public gathering of 3 or more people in the next month. Where do you find out about these events? Again, check out the candidates’ web sites. Most of them will list when and where they’ll be appearing.

Can’t make it to any events? Then pick up the phone. Most candidates have a phone number on their site that you can call for more information. And unlike the national candidates, you’re actually likely to get a direct response from the folks here in Frisco. After all, they’re not just running for office, they’re your neighbors. One last item. If you’re new to Frisco, or just haven’t gotten around to it, you have until April 10th to register to vote. Contact the City Secretary’s office for locations.

The starter’s pistol has sounded in this dash to the finish. The candidates are already out of the blocks and hitting their stride. Don’t get left behind!

Friday, March 7, 2008

No Time for a Party

I’m going to let you in on a secret I've lived with for over 20 years. This is a secret so dire that it could eliminate me from any consideration for any public office in Collin County. My closest friends know, but most of them are polite enough to overlook it. I’ve had enough of living in the shadows, so here goes…

I’m a Democrat.

Okay… there it is. I feel much better now. But before you run off to sharpen the knives and pitchforks, let’s take a look at what this cathartic revelation of mine really means. First of all, I’m really not interested in prying the guns from your cold, dead hands. I don’t kill babies during full moons, or any other time of month. And while I have been known to hug a tree now and then, it’s likely because I was trying to get away from the maniacal, wild pigs I was hunting.

So really, I’m not much different than most of my fellow Frisco residents. Sure, I have some wacky ideas about national health care and our involvement in Middle East nation-building (for one, against the other). And I often find myself championing unpopular positions in political discussions with my more conservative friends. However, in most cases, we end up discovering that our ideas are really not too different. (Well, there is the anarchist I play poker with, but that’s another story altogether.)

This year, of course, Texas Democrats are crawling out of the woodwork. For the first time in recent memory, Texans actually have a say in a presidential primary election. I’ve been surprised at the number of folks that were actively debating whether they would vote for Hillary or Barack earlier this week. Of course, some of them were basing their vote on which candidate would most likely lose to the Republican in the fall. And at my polling location, despite all the press calling for a huge Democratic Party turnout, they had twice as many voting booths on the Republican side of the room. It was a clear reminder that there were more races to be decided than who will occupy the White House. Lest we forget, Collin County is still the reddest of red strongholds.

And that’s a major problem. We’ve become a nation of Reds and Blues. There’s no room for shades of purple in between. And greens, yellows and silver need not even apply. You see, even though I identify myself as a Democrat, I don’t necessarily agree with all of the planks in the Democratic Party Platform. I’m all for safety nets in our economy, for example, but I draw the line when the net becomes the floor. And then there are some Red ideas that make a lot of sense to me (flat tax anyone?).

I recently took an online survey designed to match me up with my ideal candidate. After selecting from multiple choice questions and weighting the issues I thought were most important (health care and tax reform, by the way) I was dumbfounded to find myself tracking closest to Mike Huckabee! After some additional research, I quickly discovered that the match had a lot to do with how the questions were worded. But I was in happy to know that I could likely have a conversation with the Arkansas Governor and that we could find common ground. And that’s something that’s been missing from our national political debate for too long.

Luckily, our city elections are non-partisan. I say “luckily” because I hold out hope that we can have a real exchange of ideas between the mayoral or city council candidates without falling into the stereotypical roles dictated by party platforms. As we debate our local elections, I hope we can refrain from trying to paint the candidates with the broad strokes of national party brushes. Instead, we should encourage the candidates to eschew the traditional left and right debate. Let’s start with the solutions that are right for Frisco. If it turns out these ideas fall on one side or other of the spectrum, so be it. But it’s far more important to debate the merits of the concept than which side of the aisle it comes from.

Now, I’m going to run down to the hardware store and make sure I’ve got some extra plywood and nails. I think I can hear the mobs forming in the distance.