Thursday, March 15, 2012

Governance Forums Approaching

Governance in The Woodlands Texas is again a subject of anticipation and concern as we approach the time for residents (stakeholders) to critique the work of consultants thus far. What do we want to be when we grow up?  That is the million dollar question, or in reality, the very large multi-million dollar question. Some questions come to mind:

What are we willing to pay for our ability to self-govern? We passed by on the opportunity to be governed by existing municipalities, e.g., Conroe and Houston. Now that we find ourselves on our own, we have to make some tough choices on how we determine our ultimate fate. With dependence on county services, we are always at risk in maintaining the quality of life that we expected to last forever when we got here. We chose this place for our own reasons and did not want to put our destiny in the hands of Houston. Doesn't it strike you as amazing that we have such rich amenities here for about the same tax burden as Sugarland? We are about to see why. We do not maintain our standards for quality of living here, and every homeowner does not have an equal right to a peaceful quality life in this place.

Regional Participation Agreements (RPAs) entered into with the Cities of Houston and Conroe prevent the annexation of The Woodlands and allow residents to determine their own future governance structure within the next 50 years. In 2007, residents overwhelmingly approved the change in governmental structure to become The Woodlands Township; however, the RPAs provide the opportunity to change the current governance structure, including the option to incorporate as a municipality after May 29, 2014.

The Township’s Board of Directors has been working through a process to proactively examine whether the current governance structure is best suited for the community now and into the future or whether changes need to be made. Over the course of the last several months, the governance project team has been preparing a “gap analysis,” an evaluation of the effectiveness of existing service delivery and the potential future need for expanded and/or new services and governing tools as the community evolves. Additionally, a preliminary financial analysis has been completed so stakeholders can better understand the financial implications of municipal incorporation. The upcoming governance forums will present this analysis and allow participants to provide feedback on the future of The Woodlands. That means you, the resident, has the opportunity to speak out now! It is a good opportunity to get involved and protect your home investment.

Registration for the community governance forums continues through noon on March 28, 2012. To ensure your seat at one of these events, please register today by visiting the Township’s Web site, or by contacting Kim Cogburn at 281-210-3800. Participants who cannot attend these events will have a chance in April to watch an informational video and provide feedback online. However, that process will prevent your thoughts being discussed in the process itself. I am unsure how the offline dialogue will function, but recommend you attend a forum personally to get the most out of this that you can.

Here are the basic issues we will face:

(1)  Do we want to maintain our own roads? Some roads are falling apart in the older sections of the community, especially in Grogan's Mill. They have far outlived expectations, yet we still cannot get them replaced. The road bonds issue for the county was voted down; that removed the capability of the county to replace our roadbeds that are in a state of disrepair. One reason for this outcome is that we were outnumbered by people at the polls who do not want any additional tax burden in the county. The last election would have been a perfect time to begin projects to replace the roads, with such low interest rates for bonds. "Anything to do with The Woodlands", people outside of The Woodlands say, "we do not want to support financially. Hey, you are a rich community. You can pay for your own (expletive) roads!" So how do we vote? Do we have any choices in the matter? I have not seen a viable alternative. We must maintain our own roads.
(2)  Do we want a peaceful community? Without our own laws, we have to abide by state and county laws. What is good for the rural residents is good for the urban residents and vice-a-versa. If dogs bark, well we abide by rural law of the county where homes are further apart and barking is more tolerated. We try to enforce rules but have no power to do so. For example, one of these days, our property covenants will be challenged, because we attempted to legislate law into them, beyond property maintenance. We have no legal authority to legislate any law.
(3) Do we want control on the use of properties in our neighborhoods? We have no control on the height of buildings nor their placement, as demonstrated by development over the past few years. Zoning is not an option for us, only the enforcement of covenants is. Watch how gasoline stations have infiltrated our communities. They attract traffic, loud noise and create light pollution. We just have to accept what the development company wants to do. They do not seem to understand this issue, or if they do, it affects their bottom line too much and is financially risky, so they will be against a municipality. We need peaceful neighborhoods, especially at night. We need control over zoning. Stop building gas stations in residential areas and stop building high rise buildings in residential areas!  
(4) Do we want to have control of our streets? How about the speed limits of our roads? Engine and pavement noise are enemies of many residents here. Who bought a quiet home here but now face loud tires, transmission noise, exhaust noise and loud radios in cars? The county can do nothing, because the rural areas do not have a big issue with this. Loud mufflers on motorcycles are an ongoing issue, just as loud mufflers on cars are and trucks are. The cyclists will tell you they need those mufflers for safety. Nope, I cannot accept such justified means for making noise. The problem is deeper rooted than that. The whine of a motorcycle accelerating to 100 mph at midnight on our roads cannot be reported as a noise issue, someone breaking the law. Catch the speeder and that is enforceable but they are gone and no one really knows if they are speeding anyway. Rumbling engines must be quieted. Many cyclists like to hear the echo among the trees. Although our roads have speed limits determined by county safety studies, the county allows automobiles to go 10 mph faster than than that before enforcement. We need strict enforcement to get the problem under control. In fact, some areas should not even have the speed limit so high. Often, those causing the noise seem to be from outside of The Woodlands. They are often contractors and rural residents, visiting our commercial areas or working in our neighborhoods. I have often wished I lived in a community like El Paso, which has enforceable noise regulations.
(5) Water water everywhere? But in fact, this past year, we experienced water water nowhere. It is only going to get worse. Rise of costs and reduction of subsurface availability will haunt us for some time to come as the population of the area grows. We are at risk for water supply in bad droughts such as experienced this past year. To become a city, we must manage our own water supply. In actuality, we do anyway. The issue here is that if we must immediately own the MUD districts' assets, then every homeowner in that municipality must pay equal taxes based on property value. Therefore, a homeowner in Grogan's Mill would have to pay their part for new water wells in the Village of Creekside Park. This is the reason that many do not see a viable path towards complete self-governance. The tax burden would be too high. MUD (Municipal Utility District) assets are poison pills, guaranteeing that we will not become a full fledged municipality for another 20 years. So from where I sit today, we might as well get used to the idea that we cannot become a municipality. Really? The question is: how much are we willing to pay in taxes to get the quality of living we expect here?
(6) Another issue I have encountered is related to road signs and speed bumps. The county has an ordinance against speed bumps, so we cannot regulate speed ourselves to protect our children, even in cul-de-sacs. Traffic volume must drive any change to stop signs or traffic lights. The county has its guidelines and will not deviate from them in special situations.  

For more information on the governance project, please visit The Woodlands Township’s Web site.

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