Residents unhappy with development plans for Willow Springs

12/17/2013 5:41 PM

12/18/2013 9:13 AM

Like most Americans, the Brewer family’s home is their greatest investment.

In 2006, Steve and Stephanie Brewer moved into their home in the Haslet area, on a half-acre lot at the edge of Willow Springs Golf Course.

They were happy with their home in its semi-rural, semi-suburban setting until the owner of Willow Springs entered into a contract to sell the 47-year-old course to a developer who plans to replace fairways and greens with 500 to 800 new houses.

“We are devastated,” Stephanie Brewer said. “How much we invested, the value of our house, the views, the trees — the whole quality of life there is going to change.”

At a recent Fort Worth Zoning Commission meeting, the Brewers and about 50 of their neighbors showed up to fight the development, saying high-density housing is not compatible with the area and will drive down home values for the half acre and larger lots on the course.

To Dacus Lindsey, whose grandfather opened Willow Springs in 1966, selling the struggling golf course is simply a smart business decision, though not an easy one to make.

“I grew up on this course. I have been running the course now for 21 years, so it means a whole lot to me,” said Lindsey, who also lives on a one-acre lot on the course. “My grandparents’ ashes are spread out on the course out here.”

Lindsey declined to disclose the sale price of the 180-acre course, which is about 18 miles from downtown Fort Worth in the Alliance Corridor, west of Interstate 35W on Avondale-Haslet Road.

The sale is contingent upon the city council’s approval of the developer’s plans.

A zoning mistake?

When Fort Worth began the annexation process of the area in 2002, zoning called for most of the golf course to have 5,000 square-foot lots — or an A-5 designation — because it is easier for the city to increase the lot sizes than decrease them, said Councilman Dennis Shingelton.

“The policy has been that we annex it and in the interest of getting all the land zoned, we make them A-5, something easy to work with,” Shingleton said.

The developer, Don Plunk of Doral Properties out of Dallas, said at the zoning meeting that his company was attracted to the golf course because the 5,000-square-foot zoning was already in place for much of the course.

But Stephanie Winquest, manager of the Sendera Ranch Homeowner’s Association, a huge master-planned community near Willow Springs, said building on the golf course is “parachuting a neighborhood right into the middle of a neighborhood.”

Winquest said zoning the lots A-5 to begin with was a mistake.

“They didn’t take a look at the overall comprehensive plan for the area,” Winquest said.

Sendera Ranch, for example, has some A-5 zoning east of Willow Springs but larger, rural-residential lots are found to the southeast, southwest and west.

Shingleton has been working with residents and the developer to try to reach a compromise.

“That is not compatible planning. When I was on the city planning commission for nine years, that is the thing you plan against,” Shingleton said. “You want to protect the current homeowner, but you also want to allow the developer to realize some margin of profit.”

Plunk requested a zoning change for an 11-acre slice of the property that was zoned for planned development in 2006, because Lindsey wanted to build an addition to the clubhouse. That request was denied without prejudice in a 7-2 vote at the Dec. 11 zoning meeting, with commissioners expressing similar concerns as the area residents.

Commissioners asked Plunk to come up with a new plan for Willow Springs that would include larger lots, but Plunk said the company has already agreed to concessions, such as building larger lots on the edge of the course.

In addition, about 26 acres are already zoned for 10,000-foot-lots and 13 acres are zoned for half-acre lots from a 2006 zoning change, when Lindsey hoped to build homes on the property.

The case will go before the Fort Worth City Council on Jan. 7.

Though Plunk hinted at the zoning commission meeting that his company could soon start building homes, Shingleton said there are protections built into the system, including having the property platted, which must also be approved by the zoning commission and the city council.

Plunk also said the they have not completed a site plan of the property, and do not have a final number for the units that will be on the property.

More students, more traffic

The housing development will also add more students to the fast-growing Northwest school district, which opened a new elementary school in August and has plans to build a new high school in the area. Eaton High School is scheduled to open in north Fort Worth for the 2015-16 school year.

Residents are also concerned that traffic in the area, which is already thick with congestion, would only get worse.

With housing developments like Woodland Springs, Crawford Farms and Heritage are established on the east side of I-35W — anchored by the popular Alliance Town Center retail center — getting in and out of the area has become one of the most challenging commutes in Tarrant County.

I-35W is often packed in the Alliance Corridor, forcing commuters to flood side roads such as Farm Road 156 and Texas 170.

“Frankly, everything in the north area is like that and we will work through that as a city to alleviate those concerns as rapidly as we can,” Shingleton said.

A decline in golfers

Willow Springs provides a more affordable — and much easier — golfing alternative for an area that is heavy with country club-style courses along I-35W.

The Golf Club at Fossil Creek is southeast of Willow Springs, while The Golf Club at Championship Circle is just a few miles to the north, across Texas 114 from Texas Motor Speedway.

While those courses offer tight fairways and slick greens, Willow Springs is more rural and forgiving, suitable for beginners and short-hitters. It’s also an easy course to walk.

The weekend green fee (including a golf cart) at Willow Spring is $42, compared to $69 at The Golf Club at Championship Circle.

While popular with its regulars, Willow Springs is following a national trend with fewer people playing golf, which results in the closing of golf courses. Between 150 and 180 golf courses have closed each year since the early 2000s, according to the National Golf Foundation 2012 Golf Industry Overview.

Since 1995, the number of golf rounds played at the Willow Springs has dropped over 15 percent through 2012, with some years decreasing by as much as 25 percent, depending on weather conditions. For instance, in 1995 there were 58,642 rounds played, while 43,024 rounds were played through November of this year.

“It is just extremely difficult to make ends meet …,” Lindsey said, noting that Fort Worth shut down Z Boaz Golf Course last year.

To many of the golfers at Willow Springs, the closing of the course is a major quality-of-life hit in the area.

“The northwest corridor is the fastest growing corridor in the city of Fort Worth and they have nothing out there for the residents,” said Jen Jenkins, 62, who has been golfing at Willow Springs for 18 years. “If the golf course closes and this turns to 850 homes, as the rumor goes, it will become an undesirable place to live.”

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