Hundreds of residents turned out for a forum hosted by The Woodlands Township on incorporation, the first of its kind in the history of the community. Citizens packed a large conference room at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel, with many having to stand it the back and the crowd spilling out into the hallway.
Township Board Chairman Gordy Bunch gave a presentation on the history of The Woodlands, and what the process of incorporation would look like.
The Woodlands is currently under a township form of government. Becoming a city would change the community’s structure of government significantly. It is therefore no surprise that a forum on the topic would draw such a crowd.
While incorporation has been discussed at length since the 1990s, when Houston annexed Kingwood, it has been an especially hot topic in the last few years since the unpopular Woodlands Parkway extension was put on the ballot as part of a road bond package in 2015.
The Woodlands Parkway extension is still on the table. Additionally, two other roads opposed by the residents, additions to Branch Crossing and Gosling, have also been placed on the Montgomery County thoroughfare plan.
As a township, The Woodlands does not have the authority to stop these projects. However, as a city, they would be able to have a say concerning which roads would be built inside their city limits.
The township began looking even more seriously at incorporation after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the community in 2017. According to Bunch, The Woodlands requested funding for disaster relief; however, it was denied because they were not a city.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all, is that for years the Montgomery County Commissioners Court has abused and neglected The Woodlands. The Woodlands only has one representative on the commissioners court, which has attempted to force unpopular roads such as the Woodlands Parkway extension through regardless of what the residents want. Because The Woodlands is a tea party stronghold, and tends to vote for reform-minded candidates, the “good old boys” on commissioners court see them as a threat and have treated the community poorly.
Proponents of incorporation argue that becoming a city would give them independence from the county and allow them to control their own destiny, rather than have their fate dictated to them by a hostile and corrupt commissioners court.
“We are under attack. I know that, you know that. The county hates our guts,” said Paul Lazzaro, former Vice President of Marketing for The Woodlands Operating Company.
In addition to being able to control which roads are built, incorporation would also allow The Woodlands to create a police force (law enforcement is currently provided by a contract with the sheriff’s office), set up a municipal court, and allow The Woodlands to be a voting member of the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
If The Woodlands incorporates, municipal utility districts and covenants would remain the same.
Legislation is already in place to allow The Woodlands to incorporate when it chooses to do so. Senate Bills 1014 and 1015 by State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R–Conroe) and State Rep. Mark Keough (R–The Woodlands) establish the process under which the township can become a city.
The township is currently conducting a financial analysis of the estimated cost of providing city services. A study on how incorporation will affect the tax rate will also need to be completed, and a second forum will be held.
If the board decides to move forward with incorporation, they will call for an incorporation election. The question of whether or not to become a city will ultimately be up to the voters to decide. The voters would also have to approve a maximum initial tax rate.
If approved, The Woodlands would then become a general law city, and the township board would assume the responsibilities of a city. Residents could later vote to approve a charter and become a home rule city.
There are advantages to incorporating sooner rather than later. Bunch explained at the forum that while The Woodlands is currently a significant percentage of Montgomery County’s population and tax base, new developments and explosive growth to the north means that The Woodlands will not be as large a percentage of the county in several years. Therefore, the longer The Woodlands waits to incorporate, the less clout they will have in negotiations with the county.
Although there are still many unknowns about incorporation at this time, the amount of citizen participation surrounding the issue has been encouraging. The township board has also been very transparent and accessible to residents through the whole process. Voters will have a better idea of how incorporation will affect them once the necessary studies are completed.
It is nearly universally agreed that incorporation will eventually happen; the question is how soon.