Confusion on the part of government officials will cost a Denton County family well north of $15,000 through no fault of its own.
Those involved disagree on the specific causes, but some combination of governmental communication lapses, policy changes and inequitable application of rules seem to be at fault.
Ashley and Jeremiah Chapman closed on a plot of land on Sept. 30. The land is located in one of many so-called “doughnuts” along the outskirts of Denton proper. Those are patches of land not within city limits but surrounded by land that is.
Nearly five months later, disagreements between the family, the city of Denton and Denton County government officials mean the Chapmans are still months away from even starting construction on their home.
The family says the extra costs come in the form of additional architect fees, increased construction costs and storage fees for appliances and other items ordered months ago in anticipation that construction on their home would be well underway by now.
Additionally, the family has had to extend its lease on an apartment 20 minutes away from the property they own.
The Chapmans were eventually offered a deal by the city of Denton whereby they would not be required to obtain building permits through the city so long as a third-party inspector confirms their home is built within all city codes and development regulations.
The agreement also freed the city from all liability for the Chapmans’ financial troubles caused by government lapses over the past several months.
Despite multiple communication attempts and a presentation before the Denton City Council, Ashley Chapman said no council member aside from Deb Armintor had replied to her or reached out.
Reached for comment, Armintor said she still wasn’t completely sure where the problem was, which she found concerning.
“If I can’t understand it to my satisfaction, then I feel like that’s a problem,” she said.
Even though Armintor said the Chapmans had become experts in this niche area of local policy, Armintor didn’t think it was reasonable to expect the average property owner to understand something so complex if it couldn’t be explained simply.
Ultimately, she said what had happened to the Chapmans was wrong, and she hoped the city wouldn’t have any other property owners go through similar situations.
Perhaps most telling, the land the Chapmans bought was split up by the previous owner, and another segment was sold to a neighbor. That neighbor was able to quickly permit through the county and begin construction on his home without any of the city-side headaches the Chapmans went through.
“Either they told us the wrong information or they changed the rules,” Ashley Chapman said.
Part of the contention came because the Chapmans’ property is under a non-annexation agreement with Denton’s city government. The current agreement was signed by the previous property owner and filed with the city right around the time the Chapmans closed on their new property.
Essentially, those contracts mean property owners with some form of agricultural exemption promise to abide by certain development standards, and in turn, the city agrees to not annex the property while the agreement is active.
Such agreements have become routine for Denton and neighboring property owners since 2010, but the most recent batch proposed this past summer were themselves contentious.
A vocal group of property owners stirred up enough of a fuss at the time to get the agreements somewhat amended, but they now worry how the Chapmans’ experience will translate to their own agreements.
Nathan Harvey, the most vocal of those advocating for changes to non-annexation agreements several months ago, looked at the city’s insistence that the Chapmans permit through city channels with trepidation.
“This has never been the case under these agreements; there is no language in the agreement stating such, and it would negate a primary reason for having the agreements in the first place,” he said via email in late January. “There is significant increase in cost and regulation in permitting with the city.”
Ashley Chapman said her family and she wanted a place outside the city where they could raise their two young children — Ryann and Ashton — and live off the land to some extent. They didn’t want any city services.
She started doing her homework well before the family purchased the plat of land. She and two real estate agents spoke with Denton’s Senior Planning Director Ron Menguita on Sept. 4, according to Chapman’s records.
He, and eventually several other city and county officials, assured Chapman that permitting through the city of Denton would be unnecessary.
That was good news for Chapman, who said the additional expenses of getting various permits through Denton would prove an unnecessary cost for her family when they weren’t interested in receiving any city services to begin with.
The family was on track for months to begin construction. An architect designed a custom home with facilities for the family’s Nigerian dwarf goats, which Chapman said were like family pets they could raise as show animals.
The goats — Belle, Gaston, Guinevere and Elsa — are already living on the land, meaning the family is required to travel from their temporary apartment in Roanoke to their property south of Denton, 20 minutes away, to take care of their animals.
After numerous phone calls and emails — she tallied 51 calls by Jan. 6 — Ashley Chapman filed requests for information through the Texas Public Information Act to both the city of Denton and Denton County officials.
She also retained an attorney, at which point the city brought lawyers into the forefront as intermediaries with the family, according to email conversations provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle by Ashley Chapman.
She contends several government officials met on Dec. 15 to discuss a new permitting policy that would specifically affect homeowners with signed non-annexation agreements.
Scott McDonald, director of development service for the city of Denton, said that wasn’t really the case.
“In simplest terms, it was just a matter of a misunderstanding and miscommunication between numerous parties,” he said via phone Thursday.
Essentially, he said homeowners since 2010 with active non-annexation agreements had been getting by without permitting with the city when they should have been.
By that reckoning, the Chapmans weren’t being treated unjustly, but their neighbors had been able to slide through with less paperwork and fewer fees than they should have been able to.
McDonald said that isn’t necessarily a good thing because “for homeowners, permits protect.”
By that, a phrase he uses often, he means that permits exist to protect homeowners from unscrupulous builders who might cut corners or build something unsafe.
McDonald was clear no language in the non-annexation agreements had changed between the most recent previous and current versions.
Even so, that means there was a significant difference between what the city considered the agreements to be and how those agreements were applied in reality. Affected property owners understandably signed those agreements based upon the reality of how they were enforced.
When asked how so many homeowners were able to build without city permits all these years, McDonald said the city hadn’t realized that was happening.
“We’re not out policing,” he said.
For now, the Chapmans are still in their apartment while an architect redesigns their home, though it won’t look as they’d originally planned. The project will then go out to bid to builders once again, which will probably come along with increased construction costs. Ashley Chapman said she was hoping construction might be able to begin sometime in April, which would be a full six months after the family purchased the land.
While the ice and snow made driving conditions in Texas more hazardous last week, a Denton police sergeant said the city got lucky in terms of car crashes.
Although there was an increase in crashes Feb. 11-19, when the roads were slick and icy, there were no serious injuries or fatal crashes in Denton.
To prepare for the winter weather, Denton police Sgt. Bryan Cose said the department had more people on duty each day, anticipating that the call load would be higher. Traffic was heavier during the day and petered out as it grew dark. Cose likened it to driving conditions at night becoming worse as any melted snow froze over into ice.
“With power out in people’s homes, it was understandable why some chose to get out and drive as their only source of warmth or maybe a hot meal,” Cose said. “Ordinarily, we’d highly encourage everyone to say off the roadways.”
During Feb. 11-19, the eight-day period where ice was present on roads, Cose said the Police Department saw a 17% increase in crashes compared to the previous week. According to data from the department, there were 139 vehicle crashes reported in that time frame, with only 16 of them involving injuries.
Most of those crashes happened on Valentine’s Day and Feb. 19, although the Police Department’s crime analysts noted there wasn’t snow on the roadways on Feb. 14. Thirty-two crashes were hit-and-runs.
The last time Cose said he saw conditions similar to last week in Denton was in 2011, when “cobblestone ice” formed on the roadways.
“There were several days of icy roads and really treacherous travel,” he said.
Three Denton police vehicles were also hit by motorists sliding on ice while officers were out assisting with traffic.
At Medical City Denton, hospital spokesperson Dana Benton Long said they had an increase in the number of people coming into the emergency room with injuries from crashes, falls from slipping on ice, hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Long said Friday afternoon she hadn’t heard definitively whether any of those intakes resulted in deaths.
The hospital is a Level II trauma center, which means it has the resources to help severely injured patients 24/7. Although the hospital is in Denton, its patients can come from all over North Texas.
By Friday afternoon, Texas Health Resources hadn’t provided information on hospitalizations at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton.
Data from Denton police shows there were two separate deaths on Feb. 11 and 17 that were possibly weather-related: two men who were each found unconscious outside a business. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to issue a cause or manner of death for either man as of Friday.
“I think we got lucky because this wasn’t strictly an icy event,” Cose said of the storms. “The snow, surprisingly, helped people get around a little bit easier than what we’re used to because there was snow on top of the slick ice. We probably saw fewer crashes than we would normally see.”
At 4:18 p.m. Friday, Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth confirmed with the other fire stations in the city that newly built Station 8 had heard the message and was ready to go.
Personnel from every station voiced confirmation that they could communicate with each other through the department’s system. Hudspeth spoke last to confirm Station 8’s position.
“This is Mayor Hudspeth. I am proud to officially open new Fire Station 8, located at 3131 Colorado Blvd.,” he said. “Please show the status board updated with Denton Fire Department Fire Station 8 in service with new Engine 8 and Medic 8. This station is now fully staffed and open to serve the citizens of Denton.”
While construction for Denton Fire Station 8 won’t officially conclude for another few days, the Fire Department held an unofficial opening Friday to take possession of the newly built station.
The city of Denton’s first fire apparatus in 14 years will soon respond to emergencies from its base at 3131 Colorado Blvd. after being under construction for the past year.
“This is an ideal location,” Fire Department Chief Kenneth Hedges said. “It has easy access to the interstate corridor; obviously right behind us we have several assisted living centers, memory care centers, [and being here] will obviously speed up on response time.”
Denton Fire Station 8 is a station six years in the making and will now provide a work base and home away from home for up to six firefighters. The new station brings a new fire engine to the city to work alongside Medic 8, an ambulance that was previously operating out of an old classroom at Medical City Denton.
Some tradition: Fire departments push new engines into the stations as a call back to when departments used horses to pull its apparatus to a fire, when the crews would push the fire apparatus back into the bay after washing it down for the next call. #dentonrc pic.twitter.com/cnKLyMDLPg— Zaira Perez 🇲🇽 (@zairalperez) February 26, 2021
Station 8’s location will provide quick responses to emergencies around Denton’s southeastern medical corridor, where officials identified a hole in response in 2015.
Previously, emergency calls in the area near Brinker Road and Colorado Boulevard had a response from Denton Fire Station 2 on Mockingbird Lane, Central Fire Station on East Hickory Street or Fire Station 6 on Teasley Lane, south of Loop 288.
The new station’s service area will expand out to Interstate 35E and further south to the Denton State Supported Living Center.
Staff from the station hoisted the U.S. and Texas flags. To keep with tradition, staff and Hudspeth pushed Engine 8 into the bay. Hedges said the tradition dates back to when fire departments used horses to pull fire apparatuses.
“Fire services is heavy in tradition, and this is something we’ve continued to do, and it’s [done] pretty much across the U.S.,” Hedges said. “It’s very standardized when you have a new unit or a new station, usually you push it in to simulate the past.”
DFD personnel hoisted the U.S. and Texas flags. Right after this, an ambulance from Station 2 drove by and honked. pic.twitter.com/b39YL1dQop— Zaira Perez 🇲🇽 (@zairalperez) February 26, 2021
At about 8,500 square feet, Station 8 is the smallest of the newer stations, which includes Stations 2, 3 and 4.
Construction for Station 3 also wrapped up this month. The newly improved station, nicknamed “The Nuthouse” for its proximity to the University of North Texas and Lucky the Squirrel, was built on the corner of McCormick Street and I-35E. The original station was first built in 1971 and was the oldest fire station still in operation in Denton.
Station 3’s new building is 16,000 square feet, three times the size of the former building. Battalion Chief David Boots, a spokesperson for the department, said it has four bays instead of two and will house the department’s second battalion chief.
“It will eventually house a second truck company in the future,” he said. “That station can house up to 12 people. It’s built for growth.”