Jan 27

Woodlands to Seek Legislative OK for More Authority

By John D. Harden

Last November, angry and concerned residents in The Woodlands flocked to a morning Township board meeting to oppose a proposal to construct a gas station in a quiet patch of the community.

During that meeting, The Woodlands board members explained that they were powerless to ease the residents’ concerns, and could only listen to their frustrations. Created as a special type of government recognized by the state, The Woodlands and its leaders have to abide by what nearby municipalities want.

Local leaders have indicated they want more power and are hoping, once again, state lawmakers will agree.

“As a resident I can feel the frustration of having an elected board (that has) no power to do anything, and yet we’re an 110,000-resident community,” said Gordy Bunch, who sits on the board. “It frustrates the hell out of me, too.”

As leaders begin questioning whether the community should incorporate, their pending legislative efforts is another argument for the community to become its own city, observers say.

It’s a move that could further lead to The Woodlands ultimately releasing the grasp Houston, Conroe and Montgomery County have on the area.

“The justification for incorporation ties into quality of life and enhancement of property value with a stronger city government,” said Gary Brown, a Lone Star College government professor and Woodlands resident. “If having a full-time city government through incorporation strengthens the city council’s hand in controlling development and promoting quality of life, I’m all in.”

The Woodlands board and staff haven’t disclosed the types of changes they will pursue in Austin because those conversations are held in executive session.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs manager for The Woodlands, would not elaborate on the changes sought.

But in recent meetings, officials have said they would like the ability to make ordinances, offering a clue to what the bill may look like.

Rules grandfathered

During an October meeting, board members expressed an interest in obtaining authority to create and enforce ordinances after a packed room of real estate agents came to the board to oppose a Montgomery County sign ordinance that prohibited them from placing open house signs in road right-of-ways.

The board echoed their desire for an ordinance-making ability later during the November meeting that involved the gas station.

Township board member Mike Bass said that gaining that particular ability may not solve The Woodlands problems because many of the rules that govern The Woodlands may be grand-fathered, meaning that they’ll be unlikely or difficult to change.

Bunch agreed. “The only thing we can do in the long term is to look at legislative agendas and (determine how) we might gain some ordinance making authority,” he said. “We are aware of our limitations, our weaknesses and what we need to be more self-governed than we currently are.”

The Woodlands board is limited in authority because the 110,000-plus master-planned community isn’t a city.

And by state statute, it’s technically not even a township. It’s a special improvement district, a special type of government recognized by the state.

These districts have limited governing authority but by state statutes can set and collect taxes for landscaping, constructing or improving sidewalks and streets, parking facilities, and installing art.

In some cases the state can grant additional powers.

The Woodlands previously has sought to expand its powers and authority to govern, expanding on its original purpose.

The district was created in 1993 by the 73rd Legislature “to promote health, safety, welfare and economic growth through the creation of jobs and facilitation of business development in south Montgomery County,” according to House Bill 3561.

Expanded in 2007

At that time, the district was confined to The Woodlands shopping, dining and entertainment hub, Town Center.

In 1997, the state amended powers, allowing the district to issue bonds, primarily for providing water, sewage or drainage facilities.

By 2007, state lawmakers expanded the improvement district to include all of The Woodlands 28,000 acres. That cleared a path for what’s now The Woodlands Township Board, consolidating functions of the master planned community into a single government service.

This was also the same year that SB 1012 passed, giving The Woodlands the authority to enter in a Regional Participation Agreement with Houston and Conroe to avoid annexation by the two cities until 2057.

Brown, the Lone Star professor, said it’s only natural for a government of The Woodlands size and influence to pursue additional powers and eventually be in charge of its own ordinances and regulations.

“Any full-fledged incorporated municipality wants its own city charter – or local constitution – to follow, rather than a book of covenants that only tell you how far up the driveway your kid’s in-ground basketball goal must be,” he said.

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