Monday, February 23, 2009

Workshop on the Woodlands Township Vision

There are two workshops scheduled this week allowing residents to participate in the visioning on our community. Please spread the word. They are scheduled on this Wednesday, February 25th from 5 - 8 p.m. and on Thursday, February 26th from 7 - 10 a.m., both at the Waterway Marriott. Residents may participate!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Indian Springs Village Association - do you know what this is?

Those folks who know me generally know that I am an advocate of village associations. As some people say, a village association is a "social organization". It is designed to bring people together for common cause and build upon hometown relationships for the good of the resident community. As you are aware, a village consists of neighborhoods. Within a neighborhood, there are usually less formal street neighborhoods or cul-de-sac social groups.

Personally, I like the idea of hometown socializing. We live in an era of pushing the garage door button to enter the garage and closing it behind us, never to see the neighbor waving at us from across the street. This time of the year, we have great opportunity to brave the outdoors and actually talk to a neighbor. Some neighborhoods are so closely knit that neighbors know exactly what is going on in the life of each of the neighbor's children. Do you? I do to some extent. After living in the same house for 10+ years, I know some neighbors who have lived here even longer than I. So it is easy to know their children and what is going on in their lives. It is more difficult to be friends with newcomers though. It takes an effort, well worth it, but some additional effort to make sure the appropriate contact is made regularly to become friends with a neighbor.

But back to the subject. A village association's roots are built at the neighborhood level. Each neighborhood should ask, who do we know on the village association board? I would very much like to hear from people in my neighborhood about issues and things that I can bring up to the other members of the board. I represent the Rush Haven residents in most of what I do on the board, but I also represent those who live on my immediate street, who have their very own unique issues. We are short this year in representative candidates and in RDRC board representatives. The election ballot only has three candidates for the RDRC in the WCA side of the village. OK, now I am getting into alphabet soup. Just forget I said that. Instead, think about writing in your name on the ballot in whatever village you reside! We need you. Please vote!!!!!!!!!!

Like other village associations in The Woodlands, every year, the Indian Springs Village sponsors certain events for the community. We fund three to four $1000 scholarships for those high school seniors who also contribute to the community. Our hope is that some day, some of them will return and participate on the board of this or some other association. Now is the time for Indian Springs Village residents to apply for this scholarship. Just go to the village website for specifics and the form to apply.

Another major event we organize is the Taste of the Village at Indian Springs Shopping Center. I will be publishing an article on the shopping center soon. This event is usually in the fall, about October. Look for the event; it is always fun for the entire family and it helps us to fund the scholarships. We do it for you.

We will be initiating another project to assist one or more schools with some projects this coming year. We want to reach out to all age groups of residents, but will be limited on funds in this first year, trying a new process. So we are now proposing a budget to include some school projects where some of our children attend public school.

We help other villages in their social projects by volunteering for their events, such as Panther Creek's Garage (booth) Sale, or participate in Earth Day or build and operate a float in our hometown July 4th parade.

Activities go far beyond that however. Village board members are learning the processes of the community and becoming aware of issues in the larger Township community. So The Woodlands is comprised of villages, but not organized around the concept of villages. Many people want this to occur. Some day we might have a mixture of village representatives and at large township directors on this board. At any rate, we need resident issue representation. There is another initiative to accomplish such representation through a liaison. We shall see what becomes of that initiative over the next few months.

Our village is different than most. Although we have two associations serving us, we have only one village association comprised of both sections. The section east of Falcon Wing is served by the Woodlands Community Association (WCA). The western section is served by The Woodlands Association (TWA). WCA is managed by residents. TWA is managed by the development company. Therefore, residents on the eastern side will notice that they place their vote in a different ballot box than the TWA residents west of Falcon Wing. This will all change in 2010 when the residents take over the management of the Township which will manage and govern the entire Woodlands.

Village Associations in The Woodlands
Indian Springs
Sterling Ridge
Grogan's Mill
Alden Bridge
Panther Creek
Cochran's Crossing - does not appear to have a web site
College Park
Creekside Park - no village association yet

Road Noise - what can be done for a more quiet neighborhood?

There are many people who believe that road noise is not significant enough and does not impact enough residents to be considered a real issue. It is actually an issue even to those who drive on the Woodlands parkway, but not many folks hear it. They are accustomed to the same noise on the nearby freeway. Perhaps that is because we simply grow accustomed to noise. Personally, I drive a truck, so I hear probably more noise in the truck than many other drivers in more quiet automobiles, but perhaps not. Try driving with the window down. If you have not done that, it is well worth the educational time. Another educational ride would be to go to Sawdust Road and travel east for a little ways. It won't take you long before you are driving on a different surface and you should notice the difference instantly! That is what I would like for you to experience, to see what comfort driving can be like. That section of Sawdust is a demonstration of what modern surfacing can be like here in Montgomery County. It is dramatically more quiet and in the rain, it is much more safe than a concrete surface. It has some negative facets, like its light reflectivity, but perhaps we should try this material here in The Woodlands on a stretch of the parkway.
There are some other options. One is to use concrete noise deflectors like are put on the bridge over Lake Woodlands. That size may be a wee short as a side barrier to the parkway, but it may help enough to get by. Another option is to build up some dirt to channel and baffle the noise into the air above the residential areas. This seems less practical and too costly, but it is an option none-the-less. More trees and vegetation along the sides of the road do offer some help to attenuate the light from automobiles, but it does little to attenuate noise. Still, it is an option that cannot be overlooked. Another option is to produce white noise along the road. To me, that does not sound like a very good option, but again, technology offers such solutions. Slowing down the traffic is also an option. Road noise is a function of speed and traffic volume. I bench-marked Gosling last year and plan to measure the new noise level soon. Two additional lanes have been opened and the speed limit increased from 35 to 45MPH.
After dealing with the vegetation and white noise solution, I am about ready to go after the surfacing solution. That would not solve the sounds of horns honking, the screaming of loud speakers, nor squelch the sound of a whining transmission, but it would help with tire-to-road noise. These days, radial tires are very noisy. The constant hum or whine of that contact with the road becomes a common sound in a community that was quiet 10 years ago..

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Woodlands Traffic Issue - speed and safety of children in Indian Springs

Last year I was noting a child on his bicycle, heading for school on a route to McCullough Junior High. Like all kids, he found himself a shortcut. It would take him through a maze of local streets with a maximum speed limit of 30, sometimes 25 MPH until he reached a major street. These are strict speed limits in the neighborhoods. Most of us, especially with children, expect people to observe these speed limits! In neighborhoods, we should all demand strict enforcement of speed for the protection of our children. The default is 25 unless posted otherwise. We even have one local street here posted at 25 to re-enforce the notion that children are about on the streets.

This is not about children playing in the streets however. It is about a child riding his bicycle to school here in The Woodlands. Someone will say, just take the bus. Well, that sounds good to us old fogies who have forgotten what it is like to be a member of the band, the baseball team, the dance team or whatever after school event the child needs to attend to develop social skills, broaden his horizons and generally get an extended education. The bicycle is a terrific alternative to busing and walking to school, while providing the flexibility to be where one needs to be and when he needs to be there. It is also a learning experience in itself.

This young man would cross Reedy Pond, then Gosling, to take the pathway provided by The Woodlands to McCullough. Now here's the issue. Montgomery County recently approved a speed of 45MPH along this stretch of Gosling. Why? To tell you the truth, I have no idea! Between Woodlands Parkway and Flintridge, we have a post office, an entrance to a gasoline station, an intersection with a commercial road, a park, and an entrance to an apartment complex. Did the message get to the residents in the area of Rush Haven beforehand in a court hearing on the proposal to raise the speed limit? If a court hearing occurred, how was that announcement delivered to the residents here? So from the traffic light at Woodlands Parkway to the traffic light at Flintridge, the limit was changed from 35 to 45. Then on the other side of Flintridge it is reduced to 35 where the traffic is more free flowing. There is absolutely no logic to this.

Now getting back to the child. Did one single person ask about the movement of people in the village? There is not one public school in Indian Springs, no! Not one! Any child who needs to go to school must be transported by car or bus, because he has to cross highways here. I have not seen him lately. I believe he is now attending the ninth grade campus. Despite the change of the one child's needs, this general requirement has got me concerned. My child crosses Gosling to buy a coke a the gas station. He has in the past also crossed Gosling to attend McCullough. He sometimes goes to Panther Creek Shopping Center and has to cross a right turn lane at Woodlands Parkway just to press the Woodlands Parkway pedestrian button, asking for a green pedestrian light across 5 additional lanes (four cross lanes and one right turn lane). Is that little much to ask of him? He has to get a drivers license and soon!

Let's take a look at what speeds traffic moves when we have a 45MPH speed limit. Cars move at 55! Drivers know that they can cruise at 10 MPH over the speed limit. That is a highway!!! So we ask our children to cross high speed highways in this master planned community? This section of road should be 35MPH at most with a pedestrian or bicycle crossing. I could also make a case for a slower speed just north of Woodlands Parkway. This is not the only place where we need to improve safety for our children.

This opens what seems to be an overlooked part of our community. I should know; I was hit on my bicycle one time when I was crossing Flintridge at Gosling. And we expect our children to be safe even we cannot guarantee our own safety?

Association Elections 2009 : Woodlands, Texas

Please vote in the elections!

This coming week, we begin early voting for The Woodlands Association. Some might think this is a year where it does not matter much, but indeed it matters a whole lot! We are not in a year of just executing a transition agreement, nor just finishing what was started, nor the sunset of an institution here in The Woodlands. It is another year where we need to address issues, make decisions, prioritize budget items, and solve problems along the way. It is another year for those willing to donate their time to your cause, to begin representing your interests!

Please vote in the elections! Are you willing to let others who may have a completely different agenda from you, make the decision for you?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Village of Creekside Park - Forest Disappearing?

On a casual drive, looking at the homes, neighborhoods, and plans for this new community, one gets the impression that this Creekside Park Village will have very few homes with many trees after construction is completed. The truth? History, the county, and utility companies have laid out constraints that have caused a large loss of trees from this land. The developer's vision continues to be one consistent with The Woodlands as a whole. However, in general, we will not see much of the forest on these lots for many years. Harris County plays a significant role in minimizing the tree population on the builder's lots. So does Centerpoint. So do the builders. By the time one takes away the trees for the builder's workspace, the dry easement, and the wet easement, there are not many trees left to protect on any given lot. You can draw your own conclusions by driving through the neighborhoods.

At the beginning of my quest to understand the loss of trees in this village, even though I have high respect for the development company and its employees here, I had developed a negative view of the new village in regard to the developer's commitment to the vision. Yet I knew there was much I did not understand. So I went out looking for answers. I asked myself, "what is the development company doing with this land?" It is "deforestation" to me. Now, I have a more moderated view, with some future hope, after being given insight by the development company on how this issue has played out over the past couple of decades. History of the older villages also provides a glimmer of hope for the future of the forest in this village.

Water flows downhill towards the eastern end of this village, from Kuykendahl to Gosling. As I have stated before, this is due to the elevation trend that you can observe on Google Maps between 2978 and I45 throughout The Woodlands. In the new village, because of Spring Creek, the developer has had to build totally new facilities, including the water treatment plant that is located on the east side of Gosling. This is the basic reason why the village is being built starting in the east, progressing towards the west. Infrastructure is being extended west as homes occupy lots in the east. The developer is essentially working uphill, away from the water plant. It is normal to build a water processing plant on the downhill side of a development, where there is a natural runoff away from the development. It has to conform to county or state regulations. In the case of this village, the plant and water runoff is designed to exit to Spring Creek and goes beyond those standards, filtering and diluting the water through the forest preserve and oxtail before it arrives downstream on the creek.

Creekside Park automobile mobility was initially designed to be conceptually the same as the Montgomery side of The Woodlands, with a four lane "highway" to move people east and west, similar to Woodlands Parkway. Then, on review of the plans by executives of the development company, the plan was changed to have two roads instead of one, with a roundabout to access those roads from Gosling. So was born the two existing thoroughfares of today. This decision occurred after the Creekside Forest road bed had been cleared as a four lane road, and the infrastructure had been laid next to the proposed roadbed. So you can see one reason why there are no trees close to the actual road and utility poles so far away from Creekside Forest Drive.

To prepare the infrastructure for development, the company decided to invest in a 500-year flood plain instead of accepting the 100-year flood plain for housing development. Actually, all the property has always been well above the 100-year plain. To have a 500-year flood plain, considerable land fill was required in the eastern side of the property. One to five feet of additional dirt had to be added over the existing ground surface to bring the elevation up to a 500-year flood plain. That much dirt over existing tree roots will kill the trees, and to level the land, existing trees could not be retained. Therefore the trees had to be cleared. This area of the village was the first to be developed. Many of the existing homes were built on this dirt. It wasn't a simple arbitrary decision to elevate the ground in this area. In 1994, the "Flood of Record" occurred. It was our Noah's Flood, the greatest flood known to us in this area. "All of the properties are and have been well above the 100-year flood plain", says Fred LeBlanc. The entire eastern section that fell below the 500-year flood plain was under water during this event. To protect residents from a repeat flood of this magnitude, the eastern side had to be elevated. The elementary school is also in that area, as well as Fleming Park, YMCA and other non-residential facilities.

20-foot trees in rows on western side of property, planted by the development company in the mid 90's.

To further complicate the tree issue, previous owners of the property logged all the large pines on the eastern side in the 1980's. They left the hardwoods behind. On the western side, there were two other properties primarily used for cattle grazing. Some 350 acres were pure pastureland. Those areas did not have much timber as you can imagine, so the development company planted 100,000 trees in rows as we can see today. Now, these trees are about twenty feet tall. "That was frustrating", stated Fred LeBlanc, Project Manager of Creekside Park. We planted those trees and a drought came right behind us to kill them. So we replanted again the next year and still had a problem with the drought. Finally we were successful in the third year." In addition, remarked Bill Kendrick, Director of Landscape management, "there were also natural forest clearings and in those places where there are or were large hardwoods, the canopy and root system covered some 50 feet, and were so large that they could not be retained for home construction." Logging without reforestation by the original owner did limit the options for development and those large hardwoods over the years, upsetting the forest balance. Normally, pines grow close together and produce a dense forest with other smaller trees and bushes filling in under the canopy. Especially prevalent here are the Yaupon. You won't find much Yaupon on developed home properties in this new village.

Additional small ranches were purchased and they also were unbalanced, without much natural forest to retain.

There are resident lots with many trees, but most of the trees will not remain after the builder clears the lot for construction.
Consider the builders' issues. Centerpoint, the only electric company in that village, requires a 7-foot easement in the back of each home site, or a 14-foot wide easement for two back-to-back home sites. They do not allow any exceptions. Many trees are simply doomed in the back of each lot. The easement has to be cleared for every home site. What a disappointment for a utility company! They require this 14 feet and only use 7 of it at most. As Bill Kendrick put it (paraphrased), "we could put 7 feet to good use for conserving trees behind almost half of the homes, if only Centerpoint would yield to this issue." Maybe there remains an opportunity to jump on Centerpoint about this issue. Harris County also has stricter requirements for wet easements than does Montgomery. This is a problem with having a diversity of ecology and soil within one county and trying to fit everything into a one-size-fits-all solution. This village is not in the salt grass gumbo prairie; it is in the clays and sand of the east Texas forests.

Builders are under certain constraints to protect what they are able to protect. They also have discretionary rights to remove brush and smaller trees, often at the discretion of the buying customer. They will clear everything five feet from the house footprint. When you see the scaffolds, you understand why that is the case. They must also clear the easements. In any uncleared space left, they must keep the large trees. Each lot is independently cleared to retain the trees that can be retained. It would be much less expensive to clear out an entire block of home sites, but each is treated independently at a higher cost to the builder. "It costs twice as much to do it as we are doing it, instead of using conventional means to clear development lots", states Fred LeBlanc.

Wilde Creek Park entrance

"I am a tree hugger", says Joel Deretchin, who is in charge of designing the parks. Mr Deretchin is looking forward to a new park in the village that he is designing now, with an East Texas farm theme. The new park will be inspired by what the development company found on their property from one of these East Texas farm owners. There was a well built beautiful log cabin on the premises. A few people attempted to relocate it but were unsuccessful. It is also inspired by the general Texas historical theme in the park system of this village. "We had such beautiful huge trees in Wilde Creek Park and then ... Ike came and blew them down", remarked Mr Deretchin. Regardless, Wilde Creek Park is beautiful with its lake and fountain.

As a team, Joel Deretchin and his co-workers planned and built the new Fleming Park, retaining as much original vegetation as practical, considering the elevation issue and the required additional dirt. They made the landscape more interesting by sculpturing the fill dirt, and planting many pines in some areas and a variety of other native species in other locations in the park.

Future YMCA is located across from the park. This sign is set back from the road because of the roadbed design. Reforestation should occur over the years all the way down the roadway but needs to be enriched with additional soil before reforestation can occur.

Village landscaping is not complete by any means of the imagination. There is substantial planting needed. Time is required to build up a top layer of fertile soil for natural processes to begin. This is one reason that Creekside Forest Dr remains bare. Plantings have begun along West Wilde Creek Dr, Creekside Green Dr, several other streets and various cul-de-sacs. These plantings are part of the continuing effort to reforest the area. "Seedlngs left over from Arbor Day are being planted in the village.", noted Bill Kendrick who went on to say, "Certain areas look bare, but I remember areas looking bare in the older part of The Woodlands also during development. For example, one could see McCullough School from the Woodlands Parkway in those days, same for the Panther Creek Shopping Center. Today, they are hidden from the road by the forest." There are a number of successful examples of reforestation over time lapses. This same evolution is expected to occur in the new Montgomery county village as well.

To improve on the current home site reforestation, there are a few strategies in place for the home lots. Builders are required to place (or have) three trees with a caliper of three or more inches in each front yard. Retention of existing trees in the front and back is a priority for builders.

This of course sounds good, but is it really happening? My observation is that it is not, at least on a consistent basis. I don't count three trees in the front yards. I drive by homes being built in the neighborhoods with undeveloped lots covered in trees, yet no trees are found on adjacent lots being developed. I hope there is some sort of consequence to the builder if the builder fails to do his part in conservation and reforestation.

As far as the Yaupon goes, the development company understands its value in the long run, but new homeowners tend to not appreciate them. It is simply brush to be removed. Here in The Woodlands, many believe the Yaupon is the most important tree here. Bill Kendrick agreed with this. He said "once I was asked what the most important tree is here in The Woodlands. I had to think about it for a minute. I responded, the Yaupon because it hides that which we do not want to see from public places." It is indeed the one that hides the homes from the main traffic arteries. It is the one that has winter berries that feeds the birds and squirrels and other animals. Pine and Yaupon, Yaupon and pine. They go together like love and marriage in our east Texas forests. Personally, I have an issue with clearing out of the Yaupon from under the trees to make new home construction visible from the main streets. I am sure there must be a reason, like protecting builder equipment from theft, but it takes many years to grow back Yaupon. When it already exists, I do not understand its removal. These local forests are primarily composed of Pine and Yaupon, complemented with Oak and other hardwoods. There is a balance of food and habitat for the creatures who live here and for the birds which migrate through here. I am one advocate of conservation. I call on new homeowners in The Woodlands to be the same. Plant Yaupon!!! Plant Pines!!! Take advantage of Arbor Day that the development company has traditionally sponsored for many years.

Area cleared of Yaupon under the pine trees, making house construction visible from the road.

"When we were developing the Montgomery side of The Woodlands, George Mitchell would review our plans and walk through the areas and make comments as to the density of the trees and make suggestions on what to change to keep the vision as beautiful as he we could. You would have gotten along with him perfectly.", noted Bill Kendrick. I'd like to think so. Today, we look at the plan and realize it is a very difficult chore to make a place like this live up to the name "The Woodlands". It is a vision full of values. What I found was a group of people working towards that vision, trying to overcome the many and substantial hurdles associated with such a carefully planned community.

I don't want to leave this article unaccompanied by information pertinent to the general plan for this village. It is very important to recognize just how much shared green space is being provided to residents and visitors.
43% of the village property will be shared green space - 1938 acres, includes the preserve
57% of the village property will be private development - 2056 acres
The Woodlands vision has the creeks of The Woodlands as undisturbed natural preserves for wildlife. At least the deer, birds and animals have this for a habitat. Along the natural walking path in the George Mitchell Preserve

So back to the original question. Is the forest disappearing? Not totally, but yes, of course it is disappearing. New homes built in the forest take away a large amount of land. Minimizing that impact requires sensitivity to the natural forest, not just large trees. Everyone around the table discussing this issue had similar sensitivities. I am not sure those same sensitivities exist with the builders.

Take a look into the future with what we see today and expect over time:
10 years - Loblolly Pines will grow about two feet a year, so we will see them 20 feet taller. Birds have sown the seed of oaks, pines, Yaupon and various other trees about the village. There are some naturally growing small trees which have sprouted. Seedlings planted by residents on Arbor day 2009 would now be taller than humans. Wildlife is beginning to return to the home sites, because food is becoming more abundant.
20 years - There is substantial Yaupon in many locations, but most of it is small, less than six-feet high. Pine seedlings planted 18-20 years ago are now towering above houses. Those planted ten years ago are contributing to the forest landscape now. There is a diversity of hardwoods and small trees under a developing canopy. The live Oaks planted on one street now tower above and cover the lawn areas. They are producing abundant acorn crops. Any White oaks and other fast growing oaks planted as seedlings in the early years of the village are now tall and contributing to the forest canopy. Now the homes have forest-added resale value like the rest of The Woodlands. Backyards typically have squirrels and birds. The shopping centers are no longer clearly visible from the road. Kuykendahl is four lanes and the trees planted with the development of the shopping centers are large enough to hide most of the buildings.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Indian Springs Fire Station Update, Woodlands Texas

For several years now, we have been watching a vision unfold to build a new fire station in Indian Springs. It is needed now, more than ever, for a quick response. As it is, we generally get an 8-minute response from the one on Gosling at Alden Bridge Shopping Center and the one off Bay Branch. Depending where you are located in Indian Springs, you generally are served by one of these two stations. A five-minute average is the norm for The Woodlands as a whole, but less is even more desirable. With the increasing traffic on Woodlands Parkway and potential congestion at that light, along with traffic backed up on Gosling during evening rush hour headed south to the parkway or onward to the Village of Creekside Park, there is a threat of additional time required to arrive at a destination in east Indian springs. I would not like to see a house in Indian Springs burn to the ground due to the inability to respond quickly. Even seconds make a difference in fire control.

Indian Springs Village, Woodlands Fire Station #8 has been under study for the past year or so, to see what can best be done for our residents. Options for location are very few. We are built out with very few lots remaining. There is one land parcel, east of the George Mitchell Preserve Trail Head on Flintridge, which could accommodate a new fire station. Chief Benson put it this way (summarized) - "This has passed a feasibility study by a Civil Engineer and an assessment by a consultant on wetland components and related impact of constructing a station on the proposed site. The station would be built on 1.5 to 2.0 acres of land, preferably 2.0 acres near Flintridge, but there is also some higher ground further back from the road that could be used if a road was built to get there." This land is currently part of the George Mitchell Preserve and would need to go through legal processes to free it. However, as Joel Deretchin states, "The only possible exception to maintaining all the land as the preserve would be to carve out a small site for a fire station for safety reasons, but that has not been decided."

Currently an architect is drawing up a plot layout plan. No land-use permits will be required since there will be no wetlands involved with construction on this site. Once the station has been plotted, a proposal will be developed and the development company will be approached for parcel acquisition. Then if all goes well with deeding, it goes into the design phase.

Residents are sensitive to two basic issues. How loud will it be for those who live in the nearby area? .. and .. What will be the impact to the peaceful forest preserve adjacent to the fire station? ... Noise is almost exclusively confined to the exit of a truck or EMS vehicle in the event of an emergency. The sirens must conform to national standards. The use of the sirens are confined to exiting the station and traveling on the street. They are not used while loading the truck and are turned on only as the truck enters the street. The sirens must be heard by a driver in a car with loud music and windows up. One response event lasts about 30 seconds in the vicinity of a station, from the noise perspective. On return, the truck does not use a siren. In and about the station itself, noise is the same as a residence.

To understand the frequency of siren alerts, the Chief has kindly provided us with historical response statistics. These are the number of responses to the Indian Springs area, the area which this station will primarily cover.
2006: 135
2007: 129
2008: 119
We see by these numbers that residents can expect to experience only 2 to 3 incidents a week.

EMS responds to priority 1 and 2 emergencies and not priority 3. Not all the sirens one hears in the area are from the fire department. In fact, the pitch of the sirens can be distinguished. The Sheriff's sirens are different from the medical sirens which are different from the Fire Department.

The Creekside Park Fire Station #7 construction has been prioritized ahead of Indian Springs. Hopefully, we will have our own station next year.