The controversial Colony Ridge development — which for years has weathered criticism over claims of crime, immigration, flooding and strains on local schools — will be one of the hot-button issues added to the next special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signaled this week.
Not everyone is happy the collection of residences, which can range from upscale dwellings to manufactured homes, is on the state’s agenda during the Legislature’s third special session in October, which will also consider school vouchers.
"Serious concerns have been raised about what's going on in this Colony Ridge area," Abbott told radio host Dana Loesch on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, he confirmed to Fox News Channel the sprawling housing area — which rose in an unincorporated area of the county where permitting is less stringent —would be on the agenda. A date for the session has not been set yet.
Colony Ridge LLC developer Trey Harris spoke with The Vindicator following the governor's announcement that he would add Colony Ridge to the special session.
"I'm a little disappointed in our state government that they are taking action based on lies and gossip," Harris said.
The developer said he has followed the letter of the law and provided opportunities to families.
"There are thousands of families that have moved to Liberty County for a better life, better schools and have found it here," Harris said.
Earlier in the week, the Republican Party of Texas joined the call to action relating to Colony Ridge and passed a resolution citing several negative impacts it claims the development had had on Liberty County and the surrounding area.
GOP faithful have also appealed to Abbott to have the Legislature address the issue, and implored Attorney General Ken Paxton to open an investigation. Both Abbott and Paxton are Republicans.
In addition to concerns about high water, education and lawlessness, a central theme has revolved around the significant influx of immigrants to the area.
Harris believes rhetoric from specific individuals and news stories by the Daily Wire, which has pushed the issue in recent weeks, is responsible for the governor's reaction.
"We are reaching out to several elected officials to give them some facts and data that dispute what they have been told," Harris said.
Congressman Brian Babin, a Republican representing Southeast Texas’ 36th District and a major proponent of immigration reform, believes there are significant concerns about the communities comprising Colony Ridge.
"Every U.S. citizen should be concerned about Colony Ridge. If this can happen in a red state like Texas – one of the most conservative in the nation – it can occur in any state in America. For the safety and security of Liberty County residents, I'm glad to see movement to address this issue at the state level," Babin said.
Last week, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican who toured Colony Ridge on Monday along with other government officials, raised concerns and made clear his desire to encourage Abbott to consider calling a special legislative session.
"Once I get a little more legal foundation on this to see what we can do, I am going to ask Gov. Abbott to address some of these issues in a special session," Patrick told Michael Berry, a Houston radio host and political analyst.
The GOP resolution was prompted by reports in the Daily Wire that focused on the influx of undocumented immigrants the online news organization said are allowed to purchase property using only a Tax ID Number, how the properties are marketed, and an uptick in crime rates.
Stories have also cited reports that cartels are operating in the area, as well as noting issues related to schools.
"Law-enforcement presence is thin in this area, attracting not only illegal aliens who wish to evade immigration authorities but also significant cartel and drug activity, including the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, which are reported to have purchased land in the early stages of the development in order to set up safe houses in the area,” the resolution reads.
Liberty County Judge Jay Knight said he welcomed a hard look at Colony Ridge, adding it was time the state made an effort to probe the development.
Knight said some laws have hampered what controls the county can impose on development in unincorporated areas. The judge said changes to the development code and how a county can address those rules must be made by the Legislature.
"Truthfully, the Local Government Code 232 that we have to live by needs some definite updating. We discussed this eight years ago with a Senate committee hearing in Austin, and it fell on deaf ears," Knight said.
Knight believes that development law in Texas overwhelmingly benefits the developer and needs to be revised.
"I welcome the governor to come in and have his investigation because he's known about it for a long time, and so has Paxton, and so has Lt. Gov. Patrick. They've all known about this, and it didn't happen overnight," Knight said.
Colony Ridge makes up an estimated 60 square miles in the northern part of the county. For comparison, it is only 22 square miles smaller than Cleveland, Ohio, a far cry from Cleveland, Texas, Liberty County's third-largest city at only 18.80 square miles.
According to the resolution, estimates also have the area's current population numbering 50,000 to 75,000 residents. Some estimates have it even higher.
A drive through the six subdivisions that comprise Colony Ridge shows different levels of development, from brick homes to mobile homes in some areas. While some have other types of structures, the development has undergone what appears to be an identity change with more recent construction.
Those newer subdivisions include properties that feature numerous well-established home developers and signs of a thriving commercial market.
Last week, state Rep. Ernest Bailes, a Republican who represents District 18, shared a statement after being a target of the Daily Wire over issues of perceived inaction.
"To finally get national attention brought to this problem, which we desperately need help with, I cautiously say is worth the false accusations and mud slung toward me. I will definitely take the hits if that's what it takes to get help," Bailes said.
Bailes argued problems with the development existed before he took office, and those concerns, while at times while problematic, have been — by all counts — legal under U.S. statutes.
"Federal law vehemently protects the ability for non-native individuals to purchase and own private property within the United States. The state of Texas' ability to regulate or discriminate based on country of origin is federally protected and prohibited," Bailes said.
Officials said the growth of Colony Ridge has also had an on impact on the Cleveland Independent School District, the fastest-growing school system in the state. According to Superintendent Stephen McCanless, when school began Aug. 8, the enrollment was 10,441 and has grown to 11,870 as of Tuesday.
"The constant and almost daily influx of new students put additional strain on all district resources," McCanless said. "Our district resources are maximized with such exponential growth."
He hopes a special session will address the increasing needs the school district must meet to educate and house students, such as classroom space, crowding, furniture, bus capacity and interruption to daily lesson delivery in classrooms.
Local political leaders on the other side of the aisle also weighed in.
"The reports regarding the Colony Ridge development are concerning to all of us in Liberty County. We are glad to see others taking notice of an issue our communities have been grappling with for years," said Liberty County Republican Party Chair Wes Thomas.
Michael Mark, the Liberty County Democrat party chair, believes any law-abiding person who wants to immigrate to the United States should do so in an orderly and legal fashion and be willing to work and pay taxes.
In addition, if a law-abiding person is fleeing violence or war or was brought here illegally as a child, there should be a reasonable path to legal citizenship, Mark added.
"If the Texas Legislature wants to address this issue in a fair and bipartisan manner, I think that would be a worthwhile endeavor. I support anything that makes Liberty County a better place to live for all its residents," Mark said.