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, 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.