Conservatorship fight in Austin just beginning
Editor’s note: The Vindicator will continue reporting on the 88th Legislature’s special session during the coming days with reports from Austin as lawmakers address the issue of Colony Ridge.
LIBERTY — Although the Colony Ridge development is spurring debates about crime, drug cartels and immigration, local officials are protesting the state’s proposal to put it and Liberty County under government conservatorship.
Colony Ridge is now an agenda item before the 88th Legislature’s third special session, prompting vows from Liberty County commissioners to battle with Texas and any attempt by lawmakers to place the county under the state’s thumb.
They’re denying a claim by legislators in Austin who say Liberty County Commissioners Court has “failed to protect their citizens by supporting the Colony Ridge developments.”
"We are looking and retaining counsel to defend against the state takeover of Liberty County government. I cannot believe I'm saying those words,” said County Attorney Matthew Poston.
A letter from a Republican-led coalition to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dave Phelan said officials in Liberty County can no longer control a rising tide of problems associated with the sprawling collection of homes and shops, which is subject to little regulation because it is unincorporated.
Critics on social media have claimed the controversy over Colony Ridge is fueled by trumped-up fears of immigration and racist attitudes by conservatives.
Commissioners met Tuesday morning and authorized Poston’s office to search for legal representation if any takeover efforts by the Legislature come to fruition.
Poston argued those pushing conservatorship are acting in bad faith, adding the state’s proposal is a warning to every Texas county.
“This is an attack against Liberty County directly, but it's also a warning for every other county government out there and other leaders in other county governments better pay attention to what's happening to Liberty County right now,” Poston said.
He also touted the county’s efforts to follow the law even as they sought help at the state level to put more teeth into zoning and permitting statutes in unincorporated areas — similar to what incorporated cities enjoy.
Those pleas fell on deaf ears, Liberty County officials said.
The GOP letter cited concerns from state representatives Steve Toth, Nate Schatzline, Brian Harrison and Tony Tinderholt, and made serious accusations against the Liberty County Commissioners Court.
The legislators, all members of the House Appropriations, County Affairs, Public Health and Criminal Jurisprudence committees, propose establishing funding for a Department of Public Safety substation to beef up a law-enforcement presence in Colony Ridge, as well as suggesting a need for legislation to place Liberty County under a state conservatorship if necessary.
"New information is coming to light daily and suggests that Liberty County's Commissioners Court may have failed to protect their citizens by supporting the Colony Ridge developments. By establishing a conservatorship, the state could coordinate law-enforcement operations and county restrictions to clean up and clean out Colony Ridge," the statement reads.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Leon Wilson said he is very troubled by the accusation and any assertion commissioners failed to lead on this or any issue.
Wilson called the four legislators “self-serving” and “childish” in their arguments.
"They have no idea what we have tried to accomplish, and they have never come here to a meeting and seen what we've done," Wilson said.
According to the commissioner, any time the county has reached out to the Legislature, nothing has been done to help strengthen laws governing development and construction in the county.
Wilson cited efforts in 2019 where county officials lobbied the state for more time to approve plats from developers to ensure everything was in order.
At the time, counties had 45 days, but the state responded by reducing the approval time to 30 days.
"How is that helping us?” Wilson said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Bruce Karbowski echoed Wilson's remarks.
"We took every action possible by law that the state would let us," Karbowski said. "If it doesn't have to do with health or public safety, our hands are tied."
As for the issues directly related to Colony Ridge, marketing practices, flooding and crime tend to be the go-to for development critics, with cartels often leading the conversations.
According to the MySA.com, Colony Ridge President and owner John Harris denied the existence of cartels in the area, arguing that lots are sold under the highest level of scrutiny, including screening customers for "potential terrorism/narcotics trafficking, following anti-discrimination laws, and adhering to all county ordinances, environmental regulations and model subdivision rules."
Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader offered a different perspective recently when speaking with conservative radio host Michael Berry about crime in the area.
"It's way more concerning," Rader said before citing a record-setting drug bust in Miami-Dade County, Florida, linked to Colony Ridge.
Rader clarified that while these organizations have been pinpointed in the Colony Ridge area, they exist elsewhere in the county, along with gangs more commonly affiliated with white supremacists.
"We have many of the gang members identified there, but people have to realize that in other subdivisions, we have gang members," Rader said.
Colony Ridge LLC developer Trey Harris told The Vindicator he intended to set the record straight on some of the allegations lobbed at Colony Ridge.
"We are reaching out to several elected officials to give them some facts and data
that dispute what they have been told," Harris said.
Local school officials have also expressed worries about not having enough resources as children from the development start to swell enrollment at some campuses.
There was a large contingency on the ground in the subdivision last week, representing both sides of the political aisle. The Legislature reconvened this week for a third special session, with lawmakers saying the conversation appears to just be starting.
As for a conservatorship, no such proposal has been filed as of press time.
The only item on the agenda to date that specifies Colony Ridge is House Concurrent Resolution 1 by state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, which calls for a thorough investigation of the development and expressing support for legislation prohibiting undocumented immigrants from purchasing land in communities across Texas.