Air Park Estates residents fear loss of their private runway: Hebron: Carrollton may annex air park; runway could be closed

Nov. 5--The marketing materials touting a small new residential development on the Carrollton-Plano border in the 1960s billed it as "air age living" in a country club setting.

Today, Air Park Estates is a place where, instead of hopping into their cars for a Sunday drive, residents hop into their planes and soar into the heavens.

But it hasn't been the paradise the aviation buffs expected. For years, the homeowners have waged a David-and-Goliath battle against developer Henry Billingsley, who bought controlling interest in the neighborhood airstrip decades ago, raising concern that he wanted to rip out the runway to make room for commercial ventures.

They fear the demise of their way of life is getting ever closer as the Billingsley Co. seeks to have nearly 28 acres of Air Park-Dallas disannexed from the tiny town of Hebron, then taken into Carrollton and zoned for mixed-use development.

"It's kind of like having a lake house, and they drain the lake," said Dale Burgdorf, a resident of the unincorporated subdivision immediately west of the airport. He and his neighbors contend that deed covenants promised them a runway in perpetuity.

The Hebron City Council is expected to approve the disannexation tonight. Later this month, the Carrollton council is expected to adopt a hearing schedule for annexing the land, including a large chunk of the runway.

The proposed annexation does not include the homes, but Air Park Estates residents say they plan to put up a fight.

"As a group, we'll do everything we can to keep our lifestyle and keep that piece of property from becoming developed concrete," Mr. Burgdorf said. Mr. Billingsley, reached by phone at his office, referred all questions to the cities of Hebron and Carrollton, said he was in a meeting and hung up. He had not returned several previous calls.

Having a home at Air Park-Dallas was ideal for George Bown. His grandfather and father were pilots in World Wars I and II, and he grew up with a love of flying.

He uses his 1968 Beechcraft Bonanza to get to his oil and gas and life insurance businesses in Louisiana. It's also a connection to his children, who live there, and a quick way to check on his mother, who is 84.

Shutting down the air park would end all that.

"It's a totally different change from the reason we built and moved here," Mr. Bown said.

Residents say the move for annexation into Carrollton is an attempt by Mr. Billingsley to "let the city do his dirty work."

"Why Carrollton? Because that's his way of circumnavigating the restrictions and covenants of the airport," resident Jim Darth said. "He'll let them shut it down so he doesn't have to."

Carrollton City Manager Leonard Martin said whether annexation would close the airstrip would be up to Mr. Billingsley. "I don't know that [there] would be an immediate cessation of that at all," he said.

Tod Edel, an attorney for Mr. Billingsley, declined to comment except to say he wasn't aware of any immediate plans to close the airport.

"These folks have been crying wolf for the past seven years ... and these planes are still flying," Mr. Edel said.

Hebron and Carrollton officials said Carrollton would be able to provide services that Hebron cannot, including water and sewer service.

Hebron Mayor Kelly Clem said his city would probably approve the disannexation.

"It's all by the landowner's decision," he said. "If they want to move out so they can receive the facilities -- water, sewer and things of that nature -- then that's generally what we've done in the past."

Plano already provides water and wastewater service to the homes, and the airport is surrounded by that city on three sides. Air Park Estates residents speculate that Mr. Billingsley wants the site to go into Carrollton instead of Plano because officials there may be friendlier to his development plans.

The Billingsley Co. is behind the 1,900-acre Austin Ranch project in Carrollton and The Colony, owns the site of an L.A. Fitness under construction in Carrollton, recently sold seven office buildings in the city and is developing restaurant and retail space just west of the air park.

Also, Mr. Billingsley and his wife, Lucy, daughter of Dallas real estate magnate Trammell Crow, donated $6,000 this year to the election campaign of Denton County Commissioner Ron Marchant, whose nephew Matthew Marchant sits on the Carrollton City Council.

Air Park-Dallas was established in 1965 by Milton Noell and his son David. In the 85-acre development, hangars are as common as garages, and taxiways from the homes lead to the 3,000-foot airstrip.

The Billingsleys bought a majority stake in the air park and vacant residential lots in 1983. Plans for a country club-type facility never materialized.

There have been lawsuits, including one filed by David Noell after Mr. Billingsley terminated Mr. Noell's management lease. The suit accused Mr. Billingsley of trying to force Mr. Noell out of their partnership in order to close the airfield and develop it.

Mr. Darth said homeowners have shelled out about $300,000 over the last five years to maintain the taxiways, airstrip and roads because the Billingsleys refused to keep them up.

Meanwhile, development, including a school and the upscale Shops at Willow Bend, has encroached upon the once rural landscape.

With the area changing, and development closing in, the air park seems out of place to some Carrollton residents.

"People have always asked about that air park over there ... what's going to happen to that land," City Council member Terry Simons said.

"That's a big piece of property ... right off the toll road."

AIR PARK-DALLAS TIMELINE

1965: Milton Noell, former mayor of Addison, and his son David begin developing Air Park-Dallas on 85 rural acres in southwestern Collin County. Homes have private hangars and taxiways to a runway.

1983: Milton Noell sells a 50 percent stake in the air park and its vacant lots to developers Henry Billingsley and Lucy Crow Billingsley. David Noell gets a lease to manage the airstrip, hangars and maintenance facilities.

1990: Milton Noell dies. His sons, David and Robert, each inherit a 25 percent stake in the air park.

2000: Mr. Billingsley buys Robert Noell's stake and restructures his partnership with David Noell, gaining majority control of the air park.

2001: The Shops at Willow Bend, an upscale mall in west Plano, opens near the air park, continuing a wave of development that pushes up property values near Dallas North Tollway and the Bush Turnpike.

2004: Citing the deteriorating condition of the air park's business lots, Mr. Billingsley terminates David Noell's management lease and says he plans to demolish commercial buildings on the property. Litigation ensues.

2007: Mr. Billingsley seeks to have nearly 28 acres, including part of the runway, disannexed from Hebron and annexed into Carrollton, where it would be zoned for mixed-use development.

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