After much ado about Colony Ridge, the Texas Legislature has little to show for it

An overhead view of the Colony Ridge development in New Caney on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023.
An overhead view of the Colony Ridge development in New Caney on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune
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Gov. Greg Abbott named Colony Ridge a top state priority when he placed it on the third special legislative session agenda — heeding calls by right-wing media to crack down on the fast-growing Liberty County subdivision that had become a haven for organized crime and illegal immigrants from Latin America.

Abbott vowed to take action on “any issue that needs to be enforced, in terms of a new law in the state of Texas, to make sure we’re not going to have colonies like this in our state,” he said in a Sept. 25 interview.

But nearly two weeks into the special session, no major bills to address Colony Ridge have been filed or debated. And on Thursday, the House State Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss the subdivision without considering any specific legislation.

“Why are we even here doing this?” Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, wondered aloud.

Lawmakers heard testimony by local officials and the CEO of the housing development that told a different story than the one peddled by some conservatives in recent weeks — one of a small county exploding in population in its unincorporated areas that would likely benefit from more funding for law enforcement and infrastructure, as well as stronger regulatory authority for county officials.

Local officials refuted claims made by right-wing media and Republican elected officials including Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton that Colony Ridge had become too dangerous for law enforcement to effectively police and had overwhelmed local government resources.

Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said Abbott’s public concerns that the subdivision was a “no-go zone” for law enforcement were unfounded.

“There’s no such thing as a no-go zone in Texas,” McCraw said. “We obviously talked to the sheriff… and he assured us that was not the case. Certainly, our sergeant didn’t think so. Our troopers can go anywhere.”

That sheriff, Bobby Rader, testified that while Colony Ridge has more incidents of crime than other parts of Liberty County, that was to be expected given its high population density. He said he was thankful that Colony Ridge property owners association pays for 10 contract deputies to patrol the area, though he would benefit from additional funding for his department.

“I believe if we had money in a pot somewhere, we could pay for extra Liberty County deputies and constables over in that subdivision,” Rader said.

Colony Ridge, a massive residential development north of Houston that the Rader estimates houses about 50,000 people, has grown steadily for more than a decade. John Harris, CEO of the development company behind the subdivision, said that Colony Ridge offers affordable housing to residents, including immigrants, who otherwise would not be able to purchase a home. Often, residents purchase a vacant lot and then build on it as they are able to, a Texas Tribune tour of the subdivision found.

“Why don’t we build a place, build county roads, put in water and sewer, put in high-speed internet and amenities, and make it as easy as possible for them to move in?” Harris testified Thursday, describing the company’s vision after purchasing 500 acres of timber land in the rural county. “That was our plan, and we did it.”

Colony Ridge has recently become another issue that has divided Republicans as they increasingly fall into hard-right and establishment camps. The establishment wing, led by House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has clashed with the hard-right faction led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Abbott has tried to straddle both. But what he wants with regard to Colony Ridge is unclear. The special session item on Colony Ridge asks the Legislature to “consider and act upon legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership” in areas of Texas like the subdivision. The governor did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about what legislation he wants to reach his desk.

Paxton sent a letter Thursday to Abbott, Patrick, Phelan and Republican Texans in Congress that revealed the results of an Attorney General’s Office investigation into Colony Ridge. Paxton said that the subdivision “appears to be attracting and enabling illegal alien settlement” and “has drawn far too many people and enabled far too much chaos for the current arrangement to be tolerated by the state.”

“The scale of the Colony Ridge development has proved unmanageable for effective law enforcement and other key standards of acceptable governance,” Paxton wrote. “Violent crime, drug trafficking, environmental deterioration, public disturbances, infrastructure overuse, and other problems have plagued the area and nearby towns.”

He singled out two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Rep. Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, for sponsoring a bill in 2017 that enabled Colony Ridge to establish a municipal management district. Notably, Nichols and Bailes also supported this year’s unsuccessful effort to impeach Paxton and remove him from office.

Those who testified Thursday pushed back against the claims made by Paxton and others.

Liberty County Judge Jay Knight said it is inaccurate to describe Colony Ridge as a colonia, like the substandard settlements on private land populated largely by immigrants and found in Texas counties near Mexico.

“This has water, sewer, ditches and roads, yes,” Knight said. “The water is regulated by TCEQ and it’s a private company that owns it… the roads become property of the county. It’s ours to take care of.”

He said the inability of commissioners courts to regulate development in unincorporated areas can be problematic when huge developments, like Colony Ridge, spring up there. He said he first raised concerns about this with the Legislature eight years ago.

He said in unincorporated areas, the county can regulate “water, sewer, ditches and roads, that’s it.” He added, “If you have 100 acres there, I can’t tell you you can’t have 100,000 goats, or sheep, or whatever. I can’t tell you what kind of house you can build.”

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, suggested that the House could “make lemonade” — the implication being that the governor had given them lemons with the Colony Ridge mandate— by amending laws passed in 2021 that punish local governments for reducing law enforcement budgets.

Those laws, House Bill 1900 and Senate Bill 23, apply to cities and counties with populations ranging from at least 250,000 to at least 1 million. Raymond suggested lowering that threshold to include rural counties so places like Colony Ridge are guaranteed a minimum level of law enforcement spending.

“If the governor is listening, maybe we can put this on the call,” Raymond said. “Remember when we passed two sessions ago, do not defund the police? … That got cut off at 250,000 population. That leaves out a lot of counties, including this one.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified John Harris as his brother, Trey, whom he works with to develop Colony Ridge.