The City of West Lake Hills started with a drunken plot of revenge.
A decade before Emmett Shelton founded the city in 1953, his brother, Polk, had political aspirations. But when he failed to win the 1937 Democratic primary for a seat in Congress – losing to Lyndon B. Johnson – the brothers and their friends hatched a different plan: build a city to keep their political enemies out.
At least that's how the legend goes.
“Emmett and some of the other fellows that worked hard on the campaign, they got themselves a bottle of brown whiskey and they drove up on top of one of these hills,” Emmett Shelton’s stepson, Jeffrey Dochen, says as he points out the window of West Lake Hills City Hall on a recent afternoon.
“The other fellows said, ‘Well, Emmett, you own all this land out here. Why don’t you start your own city, and we’ll invite only the ones that are on the right side of the issues.’”
And that’s just what Shelton did.
But how have West Lake Hills and other small communities been able to maintain independence as Austin's city limits balloons around them?
Javier Palomares, a developer for a tech company in Austin, asked this question for KUT's ATXplained series: “How did Rollingwood, Sunset Valley and West Lake Hills avoid getting incorporated into Austin?”
Palomares offered a guess: wealth.
“Particularly in the case of West Lake Hills, since I imagine that it’s a rather very wealthy community, they have much more political influence than other parts of the Austin metro did," he says. "And, for whatever reason, they chose not to incorporate into Austin.”
These communities are certainly wealthy. But their independence from Austin was more a matter of timing.
“The City of Austin might take us in.”
Under state law, a city can annex only unincorporated land that is just outside its limits.
“You can’t come in and annex another city that already exists,” says Virginia Collier, a city planner with Austin.
“In Travis County and surrounding Austin, there’s multiple little smaller communities that have incorporated as their own cities,” she says. “So, they have their own city council and mayor and they operate just as independent governments.”
She's referring to places like Webberville and Manor to the east, plus the Village of Volente on the north shore of Lake Travis, which incorporated in 2003. But few small cities are old enough to be almost entirely surrounded by Austin, as Sunset Valley, West Lake Hills and Rollingwood are.
West Lake Hills was the first of the three to enshrine its independence, voting to incorporate in 1953. State law at the time required a population of 200 and no more than 1,280 acres to create a city. Shelton went door to door trying to secure the votes.
“So what they’d do is they’d go out and they would go to the first resident and say, ‘Do you want to be in the new city or not in the new city?’” Dochen says. “And if they said yes, they’d draw the line around them. And then they’d go to the next one and if the next one said no, they didn’t want to be in the new city, they’d draw them out.”
Rollingwood and Sunset Valley incorporated just years later, with the same intent: As Austin continued annexing nearby land, these small communities had little interest in being subject to its regulations.
An Austin American-Statesman reporter interviewed local judge W.R. “Bud” Fowler in 1954, after residents voted to incorporate Sunset Valley.
“Fowler said the villagers decided to incorporate to keep the City of Austin from reaching out and taking in their property,” the article reads. “He said imposition of Austin city taxes would have meant that the property owners in Sunset Valley would have had to move away and seek homes elsewhere.”
Shanthi Jayakumar, an amateur historian with the Rollingwood Women’s Club, has recorded oral histories with residents who remember the founding of the city just west of MoPac. In one of them, Frank E. Scofield, whose father was the city's first mayor, remembers informal discussions of incorporation in the 1950s.
“As a child I remember meetings between my father and a lot of other men taking place in the living room of our house,” Scofield wrote. Rollingwood became a village in 1955 and a city in 1963. “My mother explained that the men were upset that the City of Austin might take us in and charge us a lot of money.”
Boundaries revised … then reinstated
Despite putting up boundaries between themselves and Austin more than half a century ago, Rollingwood, Sunset Valley and West Lake Hills have each had land disputes with their large municipal neighbor.
In 1969, a group of mostly Travis County residents sued West Lake Hills over the city's boundaries. The residents, who lived in unincorporated land just outside West Lake Hills, wanted to develop their properties in ways the city wouldn't allow, but Austin would.
The case made it to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, which in 1970, undid West Lake Hills’ incorporation, deeming the city illegally founded. The court ruled that its boundaries infringed on Austin’s and that the city had done a poor job of providing infrastructure to residents.
But employees of the now-nonexistent city continued to work.
“[C]ity marshal Emmett Shelton Jr. has no power to arrest because his office no longer exists,” a Statesman article from September 1970 reads. “But he’s still here patrolling in a car provided him by the former city and using equipment purchased by the former citizens.”
A year later, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, reinstating West Lake Hills as a city. But the disputed piece of land was given to Austin.
“[A]pproximate perfection in politics and laws.”
“In the shaded valleys and on the tree-blanketed hillsides on Lake Austin’s west side there’s talk these fall-like days of a Central Texas Utopia,” reads a 1953 Statesman article on the incorporation of West Lake Hills. “The 300-odd inhabitants of this just-born village, being men and women of practical ways, harbor no allusions that they can scale the heights to the full richness of a Utopian order of life. But they plan to travel in that direction until stopped by the roadblock of human failings.”
This “direction” was one toward few – and in some cases, no – property taxes in a suburban landscape.
Sunset Valley has no property tax, while Rollingwood and West Lake Hills maintain a minimal tax rate. While Austin taxes homeowners at a rate of 44 cents per every $100 valuation of their homes, Rollingwood collects just 21 cents and West Lake Hills 6 cents.
Instead, the cities take in a significant amount of sales tax. Sunset Valley, for example, will collect nearly $5 million in sales tax this year.
And then there’s the landscape. To maintain a suburban feel, Sunset Valley and West Lake Hills require at least 1 acre of land in order for residents to build a home.
West Lake Hills Mayor Linda Anthony moved to the city in the 1970s.
“When I bought my house, you couldn’t see another house from where I lived,” she says. “Dead quiet at night, the sky full of stars, hoot of the owl, yelp of the coyote. It was pretty fabulous.”
But there’s a price to pay. The median value of a home in West Lake Hills and Rollingwood is $1 million, while in Sunset Valley that number is closer to half a million.
These cities are also predominantly white: More than 80 percent of Rollingwood and West Lake Hills residents identified as white in 2015. Forty-eight percent of Sunset Valley residents are white.
A handful of people who live in these wealthy enclaves mentioned there's a spirit of independence among residents.
“It was built on volunteerism and it still is,” Jayakumar says. The local women’s club, for example, often fundraises to pay for city amenities. “Every single member of our city council, including the mayor, and every member of the boards and commissions … are all volunteers.”
Sunset Valley City Administrator Clay Collins says resident prefer having fewer regulations.
“We have very few streetlights on residential streets. Residents who live on those streets like it that way,” he says. “There’s a strong sense of property rights that many of our residents espouse. So, when you add all those things together you have a relatively independent group of people that have some shared values.”