Long known for the rolling hills of the Circle T Ranch and mansions secluded from the hubbub of urban life, Westlake is enduring some growing pains.
The town once identified by Forbes as the most affluent neighborhood in America is home to a small but wealthy populace of athletes, business executives and celebrities including the legendary golf instructor Hank Haney, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, nationally known radio personality Glenn Beck and BNSF Railway’s executive chairman Matthew Rose.
But now the surge of development that has swept through neighboring communities in Northeast Tarrant County has arrived in Westlake, and with it, angst and the typical town hall spats.
Such is the case this week as the town’s planning and zoning commission is scheduled to hear from at least 50 residents who are against a proposed rezoning of 62 acres of undeveloped land in the Solana office development.
“Westlake is being diluted. It’s losing its identity,” said Neil McNabnay, a patent attorney who has lived there since 2012. He says the veritable forest of green growth behind his $1.5 million home in the Glenwyk Farms neighborhood would be severely damaged by the proposed rezoning, which would allow the clear-cutting of trees and partial removal of a 50-foot hill to make room for new homes.
The land involved is a relatively small spread of dense forest along Solana Boulevard, just east of Davis Boulevard near the new Entrada and Granada developments. Although it is private property, for years the area has been used as public open space, suitable for jogging and strolling on a small path that cuts through the trees on the southwest end of the Solana corporate campus.
In 2014, the New York-based hedge fund Blackstone bought Solana out of bankruptcy and embarked upon a multimillion-dollar makeover of the office buildings on the property, including painting over the signature postmodern bright colors of the buildings with earthier beige tones.
As for the 62-acre narrow strip of forested land, Blackstone brought on developer Wilbow Corp. to come up with a plan to put housing on it. Wilbow is represented in the zoning case by Larry Corson, a former Westlake Town Council member.
Wilbow has proposed building 66 homes on quarter-acre lots — far more dense than the neighboring residential areas such as Glenwyk Farms and Granada, where homes are typically built on 1-acre lots and property values reach $1.8 million or more.
But the density of the proposed project is just one bone of contention for surrounding neighborhoods. Wilbow’s plans also call for cutting down most of the trees on the property and leveling part of the hill that provides Glenwyk Farms residents a natural buffer against noise and streetlights from nearby office park and highway.
“There are areas of it so heavily wooded people have never been back there, until the survey crews recently,” McNabnay said. McNabnay added that existing zoning rules require anyone who builds on the land to leave a 500-foot-wide buffer of natural greenery between the land and the nearby neighborhoods, but the proposed rezoning would allow for only a 150-foot-wide buffer.
Neighbors including McNabnay earlier this year filed a lawsuit in Tarrant County district court seeking a declaratory judgment clarifying that whoever builds on the 62 acres must abide by the 500-foot-wide buffer zone.
Wilbow subsequently asked for a rezoning, which would allow the smaller buffer zone. If Wilbow’s request is successful, the lawsuit would most likely become moot.
Solana was Westlake’s original corporate campus, developed in partnership with IBM in the 1980s. More recently, many other companies have arrived or broken ground, including several in the financial services industry.
Among them is a planned $100 million Charles Schwab complex that is scheduled to open in 2019 at the corner of Texas 114 and Texas 170 on Westlake’s western edge. It will bring up to 2,600 jobs, and the surrounding development will include a 200-room hotel and about 275 residences, including some multifamily housing.
Fidelity Investments also operates a massive regional campus with 4,500 employees in Westlake, and Deloitte, which performs accounting and other professional services, has a large corporate training center.
Other than corporate offices, Westlake is mostly known for some of the region’s most upscale housing, including the luxurious Vaquero gated community and golf club. It’s currently home to pro golfers and celebrities, having attracted names like the Jonas Brothers pop singing family and former pro baseball slugger Josh Hamilton over the years.
Dispute over town’s vision
In the days leading up to Monday’s meeting, town officials declined to speak in much detail about the proposed rezoning.
“One need only drive through the town of Westlake to appreciate the fact that our town staff, planning and zoning commission, and town council do an extraordinary job in staying true to Westlake’s vision, mission and values,” Mayor Laura Wheat wrote in an email. “I have every confidence that they will continue to do so with respect to the upcoming zoning case you have referenced.”
The planning and zoning commission is expected to make a recommendation after its hearing Monday. Then, the Westlake Town Council is decide the matter during a meeting on Oct. 30.
Westlake’s population is 1,230, according to the most recent census data. A decade ago, the population was about 400.
Ron Ruthven, Westlake’s planning director, said Wilbow’s plan would reduce the height of the hill behind the Glenwyk Farms neighborhood by only about 11 feet, according to plans submitted to the town.
The property has been zoned for commercial development since 1992, but has remained undeveloped, he said.
“This is the first one that has had really any significant opposition to it,” said Ruthven, who has worked at Westlake for almost a year.
Another newcomer, Joe Mohan, bought his $1.4 million house in Glenwyk Farms a little more than a year ago when he moved from Panama. Mohan is a vice president of alliances and partnerships at American Airlines, where he oversees ventures with other airlines such as British Airways and Iberia.
Mohan was stunned to learn of the proposed zoning change. He said that when he and his wife, Maria, decided to buy their house, which also backs up to the undeveloped forest, a key selling point was the promise that the town’s zoning rules guaranteed that nothing would be built within 500 feet of their back yard.
“When we saw the forest behind us, we thought it was too good to be true,” he said. “But we went back to the Realtor, and she came back to us with the zoning information and said no matter what they build back there it has to be 500 feet from you.”
“We over-leveraged ourselves to buy this place, but it was kind of a dream home. We feel betrayed.”