The Woodlands and Austin, June 20 – On May 24, 2019, suburban citizens breathed a major sigh of relief when Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 347 into law, which, for the first time in Texas history, will prevent a municipality anywhere in Texas from exercising a forced annexation of territory without the voters in that territory approving the accession in advance. State Representatives Cecil Bell (Republican of Magnolia), Dan Huberty (Republican of Kingwood), and Phil King (Republican of Weatherford) were the primary authors of the legislation.
House Bill 347 passed the Texas House on a 131 to 9 vote with all Montgomery County legislators voting for it. It passed the Texas Senate 25 to 6 with Senator Brandon Creighton (Republican of Conroe) as one of the co-sponsors.
The legislation became effective immediately upon Governor Abbott signing the bill into law.
The direct local impact is enormous. The new statute will, of course, prevent the City of Conroe from continuing to swallow up taxable territory as it has recently to make itself the fastest growing city in America. It will also protect eastern portions of Montgomery County from annexation by the City of Houston.
In terms of impact on local population, the greatest impact of the anti-annexation law, however, is upon The Woodlands. Residents of The Woodlands have feared annexation by Houston for decades, especially after the immensely unpopular forced annexation by Houston of Kingwood on December 31, 1996, at 11:59 p.m.
Houston annexation was always the driving force behind efforts by many local residents to incorporate The Woodlands as a city in order to prevent annexation either by Houston or Conroe.
The Board of Directors of the Woodlands Township, a hybrid governmental structure between a homeowners association and a special purpose district with limited powers but the ability to collect sales and property taxes, has conducted a series of consulting studies of the advisability of incorporation since January, 2018, which have cost approximately $1.4 million.
With the primary reason for incorporation legally removed, at least for the time being, The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, asked some community leaders whether the passage of House Bill 347 now negates the need for incorporation or not.
Specifically, this newspaper asked two questions:
1. Now with the passage of HB 347, which requires owner consent before forced annexation, does there remain any reason to incorporate The Woodlands?
2. If there is still a reason or reasons, what is it or what are they?
The answers followed:
Gordy Bunch, Woodlands Township Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, The Woodlands Financial Group
“We are having the new law reviewed to see how it applies to our contracts with Conroe and Houston. Once we get that feedback we will evaluate the impact.
“The reasons for or against incorporation will vary by individuals. The process was started after The Woodlands Parkway extension was being pushed against the will of our residents. Additional thoroughfares were added extending Branch Crossing and Gosling North through the Jones Forest that the community also opposes. These were the initial triggers. The multiple flooding events from Tax Day, Memorial Day and Hurricane Harvey have also triggered the discussions.
“Annexation is not the reason the board revisited Incorporation. It is the ability for our hometown to respond to catastrophes and control our infrastructure that began this process. Those issues are not impacted by the new law.”
Mike Bass, former Woodlands Township Director
“First, The Woodlands is fully protected from annexation by either Conroe or Houston until after November 2057. So the question is what about after date? If HB 347 is still in effect then such protection would extend beyond that date.
“Second, the risk factors which the Township has always been concerned with do not change and could lead to a need to incorporate.
- Will future Sheriffs continue to support the law enforcement model we have today at a reasonable cost?
- Will the County continue to adequately maintain our roads?
- Will the County invest in future road expansions needed to support the growth in and around The Woodlands?
- Can we avoid major road expansions that promote cut through traffic and designed to off load I45 traffic into our community? What will be the result of the current TxDOT I45 study?”
“One other comment regarding your HB 347 question. I have heard comments from Chairman Bunch that HB 347 does not apply to The Woodlands . I believe his assertion assumes that somehow our agreements have already granted Houston and Conroe permission to annex us if our residents choose not to incorporate before November 16, 2057.
“I do not believe this is the case for the following reasons:
- From my own reading, and the legal advice obtained, the RPAs contained no such provision. The agreements are clear in they only provide for a) release of their ETJs so we could hold an incorporation election and b) payment terms for such release. There is nothing said about what would happen after November 16, 2057. After that date both cities could annex us but see point 2 below.
- From my conversation with Senator Creighton’s office, any annexation action in the future would need to comply with current state statutes, including HB 347.
“So my take is that both cities would have to put annexation to a vote after November 16, 2057, if HB 347 is still in effect.”
Bruce Rieser, Woodlands Township Director, retired businessman
“I can’t answer that as yet. We have a session next week to go over several legal opinions, a couple of them specifically about HB347.”
Danny Signorelli, Chief Executive Officer, Signorelli Companies (real estate developer)
“In my opinion, the only reason to justify The Woodlands converting to a city was as a defensive mechanism to protect against the City of Houston taking us. This happened to Kingwood 20 years ago to the detriment of Kingwood, and I think would have been a catastrophic problem.