Melissa Phillip Chronicle
Nelda Blair? serves as chairwoman ?and Don Norrell is president of The Woodlands Township. Her position is comparable to a mayor and his to a city manager.?
A new government body, approved by residents two years ago and called The Woodlands Township, will take control of the Montgomery County community 30 miles north of Houston.
“We're transitioning from community associations that predominately provided services to a central government unit,” said Don Norrell, serving in the new role as president of the Township. “The key is centralized government.”
The change is historic because no other community in Texas has ever had legislation written to create such a unique government entity and to enable it to enter into an agreement with a city to avoid annexation.
The township is a special-purpose district that, in some ways, will look and act like a municipality when it really isn't.
Similar to a city council
The township, for example, can collect property and sales taxes to provide services, but it can't adopt ordinances. It can maintain parks and trails, but it can't fix potholes or build new streets.
The township board will be responsible for making important decisions about the community just like a city council. It will be made up of seven board members, including a chairman who is similar to a mayor. Daily operations of the government will be overseen by a president whose duties are similar to a city manager.
For most of the community's 90,000 residents, the change in governance will likely be unnoticeable. The homeowner associations and commercial owners association have worked closely with the township board over the past two years, gradually relinquishing control. The associations concluded all business last month and are now defunct.
But even as The Woodlands makes its transition, many residents remain confused about what the community is and how it is governed.
Russ Miller, who has lived there for almost nine years, said the new governance is a positive move because he does not want the community to be annexed by Houston.
“I'd like for The Woodlands to retain our integrity as a community, although I'm not sure what all that will mean,” Miller said. “I'm cautiously optimistic.”
Kenny Speight, a resident for 22 years, said he feels that The Woodlands has the best of both worlds with the township. The community can maintain the same level of services and continue to have the county's support without the expense of incorporation.
But there are those who believe the community should have incorporated and are resigned about the change.
“It's a quasi-government entity created without traditional voter participation,” said Bob Tyson, who served on The Woodlands Community Association. “I have a problem with that.”
Ed Forsley, who has lived in The Woodlands for three decades, described the change as “scary” because he believes residents will have less influence under the township. He said he's not concerned about amenities and delivery of services being affected, but he is worried about where tax dollars will go. The township will have citylike taxes yet it will still have to rely on the county for law enforcement, animal control, roads and other services.
“It gets down to the spending and what are they going to spend the money on,” Forsley said. “It has to be watched carefully.”
The new governance is the result of a decade-long effort by residents to keep the community from being snatched up by Houston. The Woodlands sits in the city's future boundaries for expansion.
Eager not to end up like Clear Lake and Kingwood, which were annexed by Houston in 1977 and 1996, respectively, The Woodlands community leaders sought to work out a deal with Houston three years ago.
Mayor Bill White and Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams of The Woodlands reached an agreement to exempt The Woodlands from Houston's boundaries. The community, in turn, agreed to give the city $45 million over the next 30 years to help fund regional projects.
Williams, who crafted the legislation along with Republican Rep. Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, said giving The Woodlands its independence was a major goal he had for the community.
“The Woodlands is the only community in the state that's been in an extraterritorial jurisdiction and escaped annexation,” Williams said. “That won't ever happen again.”
Election set in May
Some municipal pieces are already in place. In September, the township board approved a $77.6 million budget, with revenues coming equally from property taxes and sales and hotel taxes. Residents received their first local property tax bill in October.
The property tax replaces property assessments that were collected by homeowner associations.
In the Nov. 3 election, residents approved a $50 million bond measure to pay for parks, additional fire stations and to refinance debt. And in May, they will elect three township board members so that the current board can be reduced from 11 elected and appointed members to seven elected members.
The developer, The Woodlands Development Company, will still play a major role in managing the community, even though it will no longer have appointed employees on the township board.