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Wise County, a throwback to rural Texas, may be the region’s next frontier of growth

Wise County is known for its rural features — including horse pastures, rock quarries and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands.

But, the mostly rural county northwest of Fort Worth may soon have a much different identity — that of a booming residential area in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

“It’s coming up highway 114 and highway 287, and it’s coming fast,” said Tim McClure, assistant superintendent for facilities at the Northwest school district.

McClure’s school district, which serves about 24,000 students, is expected to quadruple to more than 100,000 students during the next 25 to 30 years, making it larger than the Fort Worth school district, which has 85,000 students.

About a third of that school district growth is expected to be in Wise County. The district straddles the boundaries of Wise, Tarrant and Denton counties.

Suburban rooftops are popping up quickly along the Tarrant-Wise County line, many in unincorporated areas where the city limits of Fort Worth and Rhome, its tiny neighbor, may eventually grow together. Developers are scrambling to build homes quick enough to meet demand as the region’s job base continues to grow.

Many of the new residential areas are coming to areas of Wise County where the roads, water and sewer lines, police and fire protection and other infrastructure aren’t ready for them. Already, residents who commute from Wise County to jobs in Fort Worth, Denton and other cities are dealing with backed-up, two-lane roads leading in and out of their neighborhoods.

But area leaders say they’re aware of the upcoming challenges to make room for thousands of new residents.

“Developers are coming up with ways to provide infrastructure where cities can’t,” McClure said.

Geographically, Wise County is about the same size as Tarrant County — with each county taking up a little more than 900 square miles. However, Wise County has a population of only 68,305 people, compared to Tarrant County’s roughly 2 million residents (including about 900,000 people in Fort Worth).

But that will change.

Wise County’s population is expected to increase to 105,797 residents by 2045, according to data from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the region’s official planning body. That’s an increase of 55 percent.

When in Rhome

Many of those future Wise County residents likely will move into their new homes in Rhome, a city of 1,824 residents in the southeastern corner of Wise County. Rhome is the first city of any size encountered by many travelers entering Wise County from the Fort Worth area, and it’s also a place where two major highways — U.S. 287 and Texas 114 — come together.

During the next five to 10 years, another 3,000 people are expected to move into Rhome as a result of home construction in the new Prairie Point subdivision, said Joe Ashton, Rhome city administrator.

In addition, over the next couple of decades thousands of other residents are expected to move to Rhome as part of the Rolling V development, which is expected to span 3,500 acres (about 2,000 acres in Wise County).

Ashton said that, although some Wise County residents would prefer to maintain the rural feel of their area, most people are “aware, and on the whole, cautiously optimistic” about the inevitable growth to come.

“It’s at our doorstep right now,” Ashton said in an email. “We can either plan for it and manage it, or have it happen to us.”

Sewer lines, fire protection

Rhome is working on ways to provide waste water and other infrastructure to the new neighborhoods.

The city’s plan is to require developers to cover the cost of extending municipal services, Ashton said.

“We are currently in the design phase for an expansion of our Eastside Waste Water Treatment Facility, both to enhance the system for current residents as well as to service a new 300-acre development within city limits,” he said. “The portion of the cost of the expansion attributable to the new development will be borne by the developer.”

The city also is studying whether to assess impact fees to developers to pay for water and waste water systems. Police and fire services, he said, likely can be covered by the increased property tax and sales tax revenue generated by having the new neighborhoods in the city’s limits.

Developments that take place outside the city limits, but within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, will be asked to pay for their own additional fire and police services through agreements with Rhome, he said.

Some other large, master-planned residential developments are taking place between Fort Worth and Rhome, within Fort Worth’s extraterritorial jurisdiction — or ETJ. Developments in an ETJ must comply with that city’s standards, even if they aren’t yet in the city’s limits.

Some of those other developments include:

  • Northstar, a planned 2,124-home residential development near U.S. 287, Bates Aston Road and Avondale Haslet Road.
  • Sendera Ranch, an enormous development straddling the Tarrant-Wise County line that eventually is expected to have nearly 10,000 homes, including 3,600 homes on the Wise County side of the line. The area already is clogged with traffic — especially at the beginning and end of school days, and during weekday rush hours, on Willow Springs Road, and Avondale Haslet Road.
  • Elizabeth Creek at Alpha Ranch, a planned community of 3,000 homes extending from the north end of Sendera Ranch to Texas 114.

Limited government services

Much of the growth is taking place in unincorporated portions of Wise County. Texas law limits how much a county government can restrict growth. For example, counties generally don’t have the authority to pass zoning ordinances, as cities do, to control and restrict development.

But one way Wise County’s leadership can accommodate the growth is to prepare for the increased automobile traffic, said J.D. Clark, Wise County judge.

Wise County joined the North Central Texas Council of Governments in 2009, when the council expanded the boundaries of the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s official metropolitan planning area. As a result, Wise County officials were able to become a more prominent part of the planning process and get a better idea of what improvements could be made to accommodate residential and commercial growth.

Wise County officials believe that tens of millions of dollars will be needed to widen not only highways but to convert two-lane country roads into urban thoroughfares in response to the impending residential boom. Several projects are being planned over the next two decades, including overhauls of frontage roads and at least three intersections of U.S. 287 between the Tarrant County line and the intersection with Texas 114 in Rhome.

Most of the cost of the projects can be covered by state and federal highway funding, but Wise County officials will have to compete with other transportation projects across the region to win some of that funding.

“We don’t feel surprised by the growth,” Clark, the Wise County judge, said in an interview. “We’ve known it was coming and we have watched it. In the past few years, we’ve been really focusing on looking at our subdivision rules and making sure they are modern.”

Clark, who now serves as president of the council of governments executive board, added: “We’re working with developers and property owners all the time, to make sure they understand the rules. We’re thinking about the traffic impact, the drainage impact, the emergency response.”

Generally, along with the growth should come the tax revenue necessary to provide services for residents, Clark said. He noted that sales tax revenue is up 11 percent compared to a year ago, and that area cities such as Decatur and Bridgeport have retail growth potential in their local business districts.

Clark says he sometimes talks with residents who don’t want the growth, but he reminds them that changes are imminent. “We’re wasting our time,” he said, “if we’re going to argue whether growth is good or bad, because growth is going to happen.”

“Instead,” Clark said, “the conversation we need to have is, what do we want that growth to look like? We would like to be proactive and shape that growth, rather than cross our arms and let it happen around us. That’s how you lose the shape of your community.”

Lots of traffic, not enough retail

One of the fastest-growing neighborhoods that straddles the Tarrant-Wise County line is Sendera Ranch, a master-planned community with miles of walking trails and other amenities that eventually could have as many as 10,000 homes (about a third of them in Wise County).

Already, about 3,600 homes have been built on the Tarrant County side of Sendera Ranch, said Melissa Hutchings, acting president of the Sendera Ranch Homeowners Association.

Hutchings bought a home in one of the first phases of Sendera Ranch development about eight years ago, on the Tarrant County side.

She loves the camaraderie neighbors feel for each other, and the quality of area park space and schools.

But there are a few things she would change about the area — before the Wise County portion of Sendera Ranch is built.

Traffic, for example.

Hutchings says it’s often difficult to get out of the neighborhood because of congestion at railroad crossings on both the east side of Sendera Ranch in Haslet, and west of the neighborhood in Avondale.

The roads in the area need to be expanded and modernized, too, she said. Willow Springs Road is the main path out of Sendera Ranch, and that road can often have lines of cars 100 deep during rush hour, trying to reach U.S. 287.

Fort Worth city officials have plans in the works to improve intersections at Avondale Haslet Road, Sendera Ranch Boulevard and Willow Springs Road. Residents recently opposed plans to build three roundabouts at intersections on those roads, and city officials agreed to instead build traditional street corners with traffic signals.

But it could be a couple of years before the street improvements are complete.

Hutchings also said the area is populated enough to support more restaurants and other retail establishments, but those services are slow in coming. The nearest large retail clusters are 10 to 12 miles away, one near Texas Motor Speedway and another in and around Alliance Town Center.

“We’re gridlocked between trains, so having things closer would be great, instead of driving to Alliance or the speedway,” said Hutchings, who lives in Sendera Ranch with her husband and 6-year-old child.

A Walmart Supercenter is about two miles to the east in Avondale, but motorists must cross a single-lane bridge to get to it — which creates a regular traffic jam.

“With our growth,” Hutchings said, “we’ve seen some ups and downs. Our streets are really tight.

“We’ve got concerns here in the neighborhood that they’re not growing the streets fast enough,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more traffic than we used to.”

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Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.
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