A group of Dallas-area homeowners are fighting back against acclaimed developer Henry Billingsley in a court battle that could end up in the Texas Supreme Court.
Billingsley wanted to transform Air Park Estates, a Collin County aviation-centered residential community, into a mixed-use development called Willow Park Village. But the way he went about it is now under heavy scrutiny. Air Park Estates homeowners scored a significant victory in the Dallas Court of Appeals earlier this month, when Justice Michael O'Neill ruled that the decision to close the residential airport was unconstitutional.
Billingsley wanted to transform Air Park Estates, a Collin County aviation-centered residential community, into a mixed-use development.
In 2007, Billingsley began the process to have the Air Park land annexed and rezoned. Then he lobbied to get a strict ordinance regulating the airport passed. The private airport had operated freely since its founding in the 1960s by David Noell and his father, Milton.
The new requirements included mandatory insurance policies and the hiring of an accredited airport manager. Violating the newly established ordinance was grounds to close the airport and demolish the air park.
As owner of the land, Billingsley had the responsibility to make the changes. What he didn’t have was the motivation. When Air Park homeowners such as David Noell tried to remedy the situation, the city told them they weren’t the airport owners and therefore could not act on its behalf. That’s when the Noell and other homeowners filed suit against Billingsley and the city.
While the case was pending, Carrollton’s property standards board voted 5 to 4 to close the airport unless all the violations were remedied “by the owner” within 30 days. The homeowners responded by adding the board to their lawsuit.
At trial, the jury sided largely with the homeowners, determining that the ordinance to regulate the airport was valid, but the order to close it wasn’t.
"The jury found, among other things, that Billingsley and the Zoning Committee breached their fiduciary duties to homeowners," the court of appeals ruling reads. In other words, a property owner can’t refuse to maintain a building and work to have it shut down in order to use the same land for a more lucrative purpose.
The jury’s verdict meant Billingsley and Carrollton had to foot the bill to repair the airport and make things right with homeowners. The jury awarded $2 million in damages.
"Not only did a government — the City of Carrollton — try to seize private homes and property at the behest of a private developer, it attempted to do so without paying for it," said Air Park Estates attorney Chris Kratovil, calling the court of appeals opinion "a significant victory for state property rights."
Now that Billingsley has exhausted his district appeals, it's likely he'll go all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, setting up one more David-versus-Goliath battle in a case 30 years in the making. Billingsley has until May 24 to file a petition for review. Calls and emails to Billingsley's attorney, Ken Carroll, were not immediately returned.
"We do not anticipate that the Texas Supreme Court will alter the legal conclusions reached by the Court of Appeals, as those conclusions are well grounded in Texas law," Kratovil said. "Unless and until the Supreme Court holds differently, the opinion of the Dallas Court of Appeals is the law and all parties — including Mr. Billingsley and the City of Carrollton — are obligated to abide by it."