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Denton County, university officials monitoring coronavirus

While there’s been no suspected cases of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus in Denton County, Matt Richardson, director of the county public health, said he and other officials are continuing to monitor the situation.

The virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in mid-December and has been spreading quickly in recent days. In a report to the Denton County Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday, Richardson said cases are rapidly growing. Monday when he prepared his presentation, there were 2,798 cases across the world. By Tuesday morning, there were 4,474.

“We’ve coordinated multiple communications with health care providers, lots of community members have questions about coronavirus, lots of doctors and hospitals have questions,” Richardson said. “Again fire, police, EMS and response agencies have questions. We’re trying to keep them up to date and answer questions in real time. We’ve done quite a bit of that in recent weeks, and it’s increasing.”

The virus presents like a common cold, with fever, cough and shortness of breath the most common symptoms. Those who are at risk were in Wuhan, or have been in close proximity to someone who has had the virus, Richardson said.

In the United States, numbers remain much lower than China, and the four suspected cases in Texas were all confirmed as negative.

Two of the suspected cases were university students who could have been exposed. Officials at Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas said they are monitoring the situation and in contact with public health officials.

“UNT public health and emergency preparedness staff regularly keep in contact with government public health officials to stay updated on the latest public health information, such as the coronavirus activity,” said Leigh Anne Gullett, a spokesperson for UNT. “Our staff, including doctors from our health center, work with public health partners to provide information and assist our university community should the need arise.”

That doesn’t mean no one is impacted in Denton, though. Kate McWilliams, a lifelong Denton resident, is watching from afar because her son Andrew lives in Kunming, China. While he is about 1,000 miles away from Wuhan Province, he and has girlfriend have been confined to their apartment for days and have seen a shortage of food at the grocery store.

“Every day something new has developed, and he told me yesterday now people can’t get in or out of the city,” McWilliams said Tuesday. “I’m not as worried about the virus as much as I am about them not getting food or water or being able to work.”

Residents voice concerns late into night as council considers options to protect existing homes close to old gas wells

Update: At around 12:35 a.m. Wednesday, the City Council voted 4-3 to keep the setbacks at 500 feet and made sure that houses within that distance remain conforming. Voting against were Mayor Chris Watts and council members John Ryan and Gerard Hudspeth. This story will be updated later today.


Hundreds of homeowners packed into Denton City Hall chambers and designated overflow spaces, including Denton Civic Center, as they tried to understand what new reverse setbacks could mean for their homes and property during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

Council members spent the first part of the meeting seeking to understand the proposals in conversations with city staff as they consider how to increase the distance between gas wells and new homes. There’s been contention about how “nonconforming structures” will be treated — city speak for homes that are within the new proposed “reverse setbacks” but are far enough away in current city code.

As they spoke, attendees clutched packets with the presentations explaining four options to increase the reverse setbacks. Sixty-two people signed up to address the council, said Ryan Adams, a spokesperson for the city.

Property owners voiced concerns about what a nonconforming status would mean for their lots and homes, and how it would impact resale, rebuilding in case of natural disaster and home insurance. Overwhelmingly, owners were frustrated and explained their homes were built years before the gas wells were put in place.

“If you have your home destroyed and you want to rebuild your home on another lot somewhere else, the insurance company may or may not cover anything for that house,” said resident Marcus Pritchett. “We can lose the value of the lot and the value of our house in one activity.”

Mark Finley / Sophie Moncaleano/For the DRC  

Mayor Chris Watts discusses the timeline of the proposed amendment to the Denton Development Code with Richard Cannone during a public hearing of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting at City Hall. Hundreds of homeowners packed into Denton City Hall as they tried to understand what new reverse setbacks from gas wells could mean for their homes and property.

Nonconforming generally means a home can continue to be used but cannot be rebuilt after a fire or tornado. The postcard sent to residents last week didn’t indicate what the council had proposed with the prior vote to protect homes already inside the 250-foot distance and extend those protections to those homes affected by the 500-foot distance.

The frustrations with the nonconforming classification was echoed by several residents, who expressed frustration at the process and council’s previous vote on the matter.

Although the council voted 5-2 last year to increase the reverse setback to 500 feet, Mayor Chris Watts asked to reconsider the decision. He said he was concerned that affected homeowners weren’t notified. Council members agreed to the re-vote, triggering Tuesday night’s public hearing.

Tuesday night was also the formal unveiling of a new fourth option for the Denton City Council related to building near gas wells, that would protect properties like Pritchett’s. The city attorney’s office said it does not support the option, which could treat the owners of undeveloped land differently from current homeowners. But over the weekend, the option to protect current homes showed up on the agenda for Tuesday night’s public hearing in response to community outcry.

“Who in their right mind would buy a home that cannot be rebuilt if demolished?” said Dennis Howard, who has lived in his home for 22 years. “I was really agitated when I got that postcard, and hearing the recent proposal for [the new option], I feel what could have been a really nasty situation can be rectified.”

Council members apologized to the large audience for making the decision without considering impacted property owners.

“I made the original motion to do this, and one of the things that’s become very clear to us is that we messed up,” council member Jesse Davis said. “If we do this the right way, all of the things y’all are worried about tonight we will address.”

A council vote was expected late Tuesday evening.

The meeting can be viewed at https://bit.ly/36BFYlQ.

Owners, volunteers get more time to save former one-room segregated schoolhouse in Pilot Point
City also learns it needs better stormwater drainage but is short on reserve funds

PILOT POINT — The Pilot Point City Council gave the Harris family another 60 days to assess the condition of their threatened historic home, part of which used to be a one-room schoolhouse serving African-American children.

Council members agreed the family could have more time to develop a plan to rescue the structure, located at 522 E. Burks St. They also agreed that the city’s public works department could do its part to address the drainage issues that contributed to the failure of the house’s foundation.

Cecelia Harris told council members she and other family members had been working long hours and diligently to address the problems.

“We know there is still a lot to be done,” Harris said, adding that they appreciated having more time. “It didn’t get messed up in one day and it cannot be fixed in one day.”

City officials condemned the house in October, but gave it a stay of execution after learning of its historic significance. Part of the building served as a schoolhouse in Cooke County. It was moved to Pilot Point in the 1940s.

An experienced builder met with the family at the house Saturday in preparation for Monday’s meeting with the City Council. Chris Aguinaldo, who also volunteers for Pilot Point’s Historic Review Board, told city officials that the building was “definitely salvageable.”

“We start from the ground and work up,” Aguinaldo said, explaining the advice he gave the family: to fix the foundation first, and then address any structural issues before moving to the roof.

Aguinaldo agreed that poor stormwater drainage contributed to the house’s deterioration. The foundation was essentially on the ground now and couldn’t be fixed without addressing the underlying problem with drainage, he said.

Public Works Director Trent Vandagriff said Pilot Point needed better stormwater drainage citywide, but he also got an estimate for what it would cost to fix that portion of East Burks Street: $119,000.

The department’s entire stormwater project budget for this year is $35,000. Some or all of the budget may be cut, however, after council members learned earlier in the meeting that the city has just $300,000 in reserves — nearly $1.5 million shy of where the city needs to be.

“We could berm some dirt to get it away from the foundation,” Vandagriff said. “That’s probably the best we can do for now.”

Both council members and the Harris family agreed much of the trouble started in the early 2000s, when new construction aggravated long-standing problems with stormwater runoff in town. The construction of Pilot Point Intermediate School nearby also contributed to the problems even though there is a stormwater retention pond on the campus, officials said.

Mayor Shea Dane-Patterson said the city had already agreed that the Harris home did not need to be brought up to city codes for a residence, if that wasn’t the family’s plan for the property.

“We’re trying to find ways to work together, as well as beautification for the community,” Dane-Patterson said.

The Harris house wasn’t being singled out for action, she added.

“We’re looking at all the structures in town,” she said.

Even though the family has 60 days to demonstrate progress and come back with a plan, council members asked the Harris family to come back next month with an update.

GOP doesn't have votes to block Bolton, McConnell concedes

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders do not yet have the votes to block Democrats from summoning John Bolton or other witnesses at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded to fellow GOP senators late Tuesday. It could be a major hurdle for Trump’s hopes to end the trial with a quick acquittal.

McConnell gave the news to senators, according to a Republican familiar with a closed-door meeting of GOP senators and granted anonymity to discuss it.

McConnell convened the meeting shortly after Trump’s legal team made its closing arguments in the trial.

Democrats are demanding several witnesses, especially Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That’s the crux of one major article of impeachment against the president.

There are still several days before any potential witness vote would be taken. A decision to call more witnesses would require 51 votes to pass. With a 53-47 majority, Republicans can only afford to lose three.

The news came as Trump’s legal team argued forcefully against the relevance of testimony from Bolton and concluded their defense as the Senate braced for debate on witnesses.

While scoffing at Bolton’s manuscript, Trump and the Republicans have strongly resisted summoning Bolton to testify in person about what he saw and heard as Trump’s top national security adviser.

Senate Republicans spent two days behind closed doors discussing ideas to satisfy those who want to hear more testimony without prolonging the proceedings — or jeopardizing the president’s expected acquittal.

Those lost steam, and Democrats showed no interest.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called a proposal for senators to be shown the manuscript in private, keeping Bolton out of public testimony, “absurd.”

“We’re not bargaining with them. We want four witnesses, and four sets of documents, then the truth will come out,” Schumer said.

Senators are being warned that if they agree to call Bolton to testify or try to access his book manuscript, the White House will block him, beginning a weeks-long court battle over executive privilege and national security. That had seemed to leave the few senators, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have expressed a desire to hear new testimony without strong backing.

Also, other Republicans including Sen. Pat Toomey want reciprocity — bring in Bolton or another Democratic witness in exchange for one from the GOP side. Some Republicans want to hear from Biden and his son, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company when his father was vice president.

A day after the defense team largely brushed past Bolton, attorney Jay Sekulow addressed the controversy head-on by dismissing his manuscript — said to contradict a key defense argument about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — as “inadmissible.”

“It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts,” Sekulow said.

The argument built on a separate one Monday night from Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, who said that nothing in the manuscript — even if true — rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Sekulow also sought to undermine the credibility of Bolton’s book by noting that Attorney General William Barr has disputed comments attributed to him by Bolton.

The legal team also delved into areas that Democrats see as outside the scope of impeachment, chastising former FBI Director James Comey and seizing on surveillance errors the FBI has acknowledged making in its Russian election interference probe.

Trump’s attorneys argued that the Founding Fathers took care to make sure that impeachment was narrowly defined, with offenses clearly enumerated.

“The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low,” Sekulow said. “Danger. Danger. Danger. These articles must be rejected. The Constitution requires it. Justice demands it.”

Before consideration of witnesses, the case now moves toward written questions, with senators on both sides getting 16 hours to pose queries. By late in the week, they are expected to hold a vote on whether or not to hear from any witnesses.

“I don’t know that the manuscript would make any difference in the outcome of the trial,” said Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership. And some Republicans said they simply don’t trust Bolton’s word. Rand Paul of Kentucky called Bolton “disgruntled”’ and seeking to make money off his time at the White house.

John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, told an audience in Sarasota, Florida, that he believes Bolton.

White House officials privately acknowledge that they are essentially powerless to block the book’s publication, but could sue after the fact if they believe it violated the confidentiality agreement Bolton signed against disclosing classified information.

Trump is charged with abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden at the same time his administration was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid. A second charge accuses Trump of obstructing Congress in its probe.

Trump and his lawyers have argued repeatedly that Democrats are using impeachment to try to undo the results of the last presidential election and drive Trump from office.

On Tuesday, as he was resting his case, Cipollone played video clips from House Democrats during the presidential impeachment of Bill Clinton — including several who are now managers of the Trump impeachment trial — in an attempt to depict them as hypocritical for sounding the alarm then about the partisan dangers of impeachment.

“What they are asking you do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election, with no basis, and in violation of the Constitution,” Cipollone said. “Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots?”

Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump’s refusal to allow administration officials to testify only reinforces that the White House is hiding evidence. The White House has had Bolton’s manuscript for about a month, according to a letter from Bolton’s attorney.

No matter the vote on witness, acquittal still seems likely given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and conviction would require a two-thirds majority.

According to data compiled by C-SPAN, the House managers used just under 22 of their 24 hours over three days, while the White House team used almost 12 hours, or half their time.