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Goats graze on property along Hickory Hill Road on June 28 near Argyle. Some of the town’s residents who are worried they will lose the right to use their land for agricultural purposes have been at war since early this year with elected officials.

The rural charm of Argyle, just south of Denton, is a page out of the children’s book “The Big Red Barn”: Canopies of native trees shade roads lined with large homesteads dotted by fresh cut hay. Goats and horses graze in front yards, and names such as “Hacienda Mañana” and “Buttermilk Flats” adorn property gates.

The 4,200 folks who call this place home are a mix of long-timers who view Dallas as a foreign destination and relative newcomers in search of a more laid-back way of life and larger properties.

“I love that it’s not in the middle of all the chaos of DFW and has a good community feel,” Katherine Collins, who has lived in Argyle almost six years, told me Friday as her two young children enjoyed their snow cones. “People aren’t thrilled about anyone messing with the rural feel.”

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Sharon Grigsby The Dallas Morning News

That’s an understatement. I’ve reported on battles in many North Texas communities to find the right balance of commercial development and suburban lifestyle. Idyllic Argyle remains overwhelmingly country, but it now confronts the first realities of change-churning growth.

A faction of Argyle residents who are worried they will lose the right to use their land for agricultural purposes — and miss out on the resulting tax exemptions — has been at war since early this year with elected officials. The name-calling, personal attacks and accusations from both sides on social media and NextDoor have left a stench worse than the pig farms so often mentioned in the dispute.

The bitter disagreement initially involved potential changes to the city’s land use chart — including clarifying, and restricting, what is considered “commercial ag” purposes.

Argyle’s elected leaders maintained that the changes would prevent large ag operations from setting up in existing neighborhoods. In response, residents — those who grow peaches on their property or offer riding lessons — pointed to what they considered problematic language in the constantly evolving 80-or-so-page document.

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Gwende Wilmot, who owns a 35-tree, five-acre peach orchard in Argyle, says she will “keep a closer eye” on changes to city ordinances that would cut agriculture exemptions.

The entire undertaking accomplished little beyond providing more mud to sling during the recent council campaigns. Elected officials pushing for the land-use changes — and accused of “attacking ag” — pointed out they were founding members of the Keep Argyle Rural movement several years back. In turn, many of those with ag exemptions claimed the town is trying to gain tax revenue at their expense.

Although Mayor Donald Moser and his Council allies threw in the towel on the land-use changes shortly before Election Day, any semblance of trust is gone among some residents.

But wait, there’s more. During the same April meeting at which the council rejected the land use work, Council members Ron Schmidt and Marla Hawkesworth had an altercation that has become a defining and divisive moment in the town’s political scene. Hawkesworth filed a complaint against her colleague, and two weeks ago, the council voted to sanction Schmidt.

The opposing sides in all of the disagreements — the political campaigns, the Schmidt incident and the land-use debate — present diametrically opposing sets of facts. Perhaps the one thing they all agree on is how difficult it will be to move forward in the next couple of months.

This mess started in 2018 when elected officials and city staff decided to work on updates to Argyle’s designated land uses — commercial, residential and agriculture.

But early this year, town manager Kristi Gilbert and her staff heard from residents who were worried that the new provisions could hurt their ability to get ag-related tax exemptions.

About the same time, Hawkesworth also became concerned about whether the ag land-use changes were in the best interest of residents. Her statement that “our agricultural property owners are going to feel attacked” became a rallying cry for those already incensed with the proposals — along with the candidates trying to unseat Schmidt and another council member.

Critics of the land-use plan packed the April 23 council meeting, only to learn that the city had decided that no ag-use changes would be voted on that night.

The run-in between Hawkesworth and Schmidt took place during a short break in that April meeting.

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A caution sign warns drivers in Argyle. Some residents worry they will lose the right to use land for agricultural purposes and tax exemptions.

The trouble started when Schmidt exchanged words outside the bathroom with Hawkesworth’s father, Lamar Griggs. Then, as he crossed paths with Hawkesworth moments later, he shook his finger in her face and said, “This is all your [expletive] fault.”

Schmidt told me his “your fault” remark referred to Hawkesworth being at “the root of all this stir about ‘attacking ag’.” He also said Hawkesworth “confronted” him in the hall, although he said he can’t remember what she said.

Hawkesworth denies saying a word; “he just cussed me out.” She told me that Schmidt “lost his temper, he lost complete self-control. We don’t have the luxury as civil servants to behave in that manner, especially a man against a woman.”

Hawkesworth said despite working for 20 years in the commercial construction industry, “surrounded by men, I’ve never been disrespected or talked to in that manner in my life. It is rattling to the core.”

I’ve reviewed a copy of the video of the hallway incident, which lasted about 40 seconds. While the quality is poor and there is no sound, it’s clear that Schmidt got in Hawkesworth’s face, walked off and, moments later, returned and briefly re-engaged before heading back to the meeting.

Hawkesworth told me that, the morning after her hallway encounter with Schmidt, she put campaign signs in her yard to support candidates running against Schmidt and the other incumbent, Cynthia Hermann. But the two were re-elected, and Schmidt’s colleagues voted for him to be mayor pro tem.

With many people still angry that their elected leaders had tried to pull a fast one with the ag land-use issue, the council held a special meeting June 19 to discuss the Hawkesworth-Schmidt incident. After a three-hour executive session, the council approved sanctions for Schmidt. He had to issue a public apology, sit out of council meetings until September and forfeit the mayor pro tem title.

Moser read Schmidt’s apology the next week. Schmidt said he was sorry that he “pointed my finger at a fellow council member and finished a sentence using the Lord’s name in vain.”

Hawkesworth wanted a stiffer punishment for Schmidt and said, “This was a mere slap on the wrist.” She told me she has some trepidation about his return to council.

Schmidt does not believe the sanctions imposed on him were fair and told me he has received a ton of supportive calls, texts and email. “My hope is that at some point we can get back to work. Sometimes you just have to be the bigger person.”

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Unique restaurants in Argyle such as Gnome Cones, a snow cone hut surrounded by gnome figurines, are part of a small business district in a town that’s considering land-use city ordinance changes that would shift away from its rural roots.

Like Schmidt, the mayor believes the sanctions were excessive for what he suspects was merely a heated exchange. Moser also blamed a faction of citizens, which he characterized as a “witch hunt,” for refusing to let go of the issue.

Gwende Wilmot, who has a 35-tree peach orchard on her family’s 5-acre property, is proud to be one of those who is determined not to move on. She remains furious with Schmidt’s behavior toward Hawkesworth — and what she considers to be inadequate sanctions.

The 16-year Argyle resident also believes that without Hawkesworth tapping the brakes, the council was dead-set on targeting ag usage. She told me that before this year, she didn’t pay much attention to city government, but now she’s lost trust in the council to do the right thing. “People like me are now feeling they need to keep a closer eye on things.”

That’s not a bad thing. But all sides will need to get beyond the still-raw emotions and find a way to work together if they genuinely want to maintain their community’s small-town charm amid the realities of North Texas’ relentless growth.

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