The Woodlands, August 10 – In a surprising development, the Woodlands Road Utility District #1 (“RUD”) voted not to proceed with a plan to construct an overpass at the intersection of Lake Woodlands Drive and Grogans Mill Road at its Board of Directors meeting on Monday, August 7, 2017. Prior to the meeting there was substantial misunderstanding over the positions of the Montgomery County government and of various individuals in the proposed project.
Citizen complaints and the proposed Lake Woodlands-Grogans Mill Road overpass have dominated the Board of Directors meetings of the RUD, which numerous citizens have criticized for making multimillion dollar road decisions for The Woodlands without any citizen elections or representation. Richard Durr, an executive with The Woodlands Development Company, long criticized for its control of the RUD, sat with the board, even though he is not (formally) a member of the governing body.
One supporter of the overpass project was most certainly The Woodlands Development Company, which has controlled the RUD for a long time. Robert Heinemann, the developer’s Vice President – Planning, has consistently expressed his support for the overpass. Bruce Tough, former Chairman of the Woodlands Township Board of Directors also expressed his support, arguing that the overpass would improve mobility for the east-west traffic on Lake Woodlands Drive, particularly during rush hours.
One major opponent of the overpass, however, was the real estate investment trust which owns The Woodlands Market Street shopping center. At a February 27, 2017, RUD meeting, Andrew Wilson, a representative of the real estate investment trust, spoke against construction of an overpass at the intersection of Lake Woodlands Drive and Grogans Mill Road. Wilson argued that an overpass would be bad for jobs, sales, and convenience, because, he noted, the construction of an overpass at that intersection would require Market Street to close one of the entrances into the shopping center.
Local civil engineer Ron Saikowski, who has lived in The Woodlands for more than 30 years, said, “I am against Commissioner James Noack tearing down trees and building an un-needed overpass at Grogans Mill Road and Lake Woodlands Drive. I think I will chain myself to the trees.” Woodlands resident and plumber extraordinaire Roger Goertz, the owner of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, also expressed his opposition to the proposed overpass. A poll of more than 1,000 Woodlands residents found that 76% opposed the overpass.
Noack spoke with The Golden Hammer on February 27 and told this newspaper that he had no position for or against the overpass. Noack also stated that the Montgomery County government would not contribute any funding for the proposed project. Today, The Golden Hammer interview Noack again who told this newspaper, “I believe we have a responsibility to do what the community wants. In this case, the RUD recognized the community was not behind this overpass. In this instance, they made the right decision by shelving the project.”
Money was the problem
Fundamentally, the RUD’s decision came down to money. Then-state representative Kevin Brady worked with The Woodlands Corporation, the developer of The Woodlands, to create the RUD in 1991 through the Texas Legislature. The RUD issued many tens of millions of dollars of bonds to construct major roads and collector streets in The Woodlands. It was a major financing device by which Mitchell Energy and The Woodlands Corporation created The Woodlands.
The very legitimate criticism of the RUD, however, has been that it has levied ad valorem property taxes on commercial properties to pay for those bonds and fund its operations. Since the RUD’s jurisdiction was carefully gerrymandered only to include commercial areas of The Woodlands, only a handful of voters ever were able to vote in the elections of its Board of Directors. In 2010, ten local residents voted in the election and elected insurgent board members to the WRUD #1 board. The Woodlands Development Company later procured criminal prosecutions of several of those individuals for allegedly voting illegally. Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon opted not to prosecute. Therefore, the real estate developer lobbied the Attorney General of Texas to prosecute those individuals, since the District Attorney refused to do so.
Local political activist Adrian Heath was one of the ten residents who suffered a criminal conviction for illegal voting in the 2010 election and ended up having to serve six months of a three year prison sentence before he received a parole three weeks ago. Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson, State Representative Mark Keough, and local activists Betty Anderson and Kelli Cook were among the more than one thousand individuals who wrote letters and signed petitions calling for Heath’s release from prison. Montgomery County Tea Party Vetting Committee Chairman John Wertz led the effort to obtain Heath’s release from prison.
Numerous Woodlands residents, including Woodlands Township Chairman Gordy Bunch and other members of the Township board, have criticized WRUD #1 for its secretive operations, its inaccessibility to citizens, and its taxation of Woodlands residents and businesses without offering a method of representation on its board. The District’s voting area is a highly-gerrymandered stretch of land that largely restricts voting to a few residents who work closely with the Woodlands Development Company.
The RUD now only has approximately $6.5 million in cash available to it and does not plan to issue additional bonds for road projects, according to Noack. Neither Heineman nor Durr returned telephone calls today.
The problem for the overpass proposal arose because the lower bid the RUD received to construct it was approximately $9 million. Howard Hughes Corporation, the owner of The Woodlands Development Company, had hoped to get the overpass, since the company has struggled with the Hughes Landing Development after Exxon Mobil opted out of leasing approximately one million square feet of office space there. With overwhelming resident opposition and also opposition from the Market Street commercial landowners, the RUD finally acceded to community desires rather than to those of the developer.
The vote on the RUD board was unanimously against the overpass.
Brian Jameson contributed to this story.