Although previously the township’s board of directors indicated they would not put a long-discussed incorporation measure on the ballot in an off-year election, suddenly last August they voted 5 to 2 to place the issue before voters this year.
Since then, the issue and an incorporation study commissioned by the board of directors have been hotly debated, even drawing attention from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX-08).
In a letter sent to residents one week before the election, Brady wrote, “How do bigger government, higher costs, and double-taxing ourselves for roads and law enforcement make us a better community than we already are?”
Area business leaders also united to oppose the annexation, and The Woodlands Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution stating that the “current low tax, pro-business environment attracts hotels, restaurants, and quality businesses.”
Proponents of incorporation had argued that as a traditional city they could garner more federal COVID-19 relief funds, manage their own roadways, and fend off annexation attempts from the cities of Conroe or Houston. They cited a taxpayer-funded study by the Novak Consulting Group that showed that tax rates could remain flat while providing additional services.
Board Chair Gordy Bunch had advocated strongly for abandoning the state’s only township model so that residents could exert more control over drainage projects, transportation and road development, and law enforcement.
Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who ran for re-election to the township’s board of directors unopposed Tuesday, argued that as an incorporated city The Woodlands would be fully protected from annexation by Houston and could eliminate 11 municipal utility districts (MUD) and related costs.
Although annexation has loomed over the community previously, The Woodlands has a regional agreement that prevents annexation through 2057, and a 2017 state law bans forced annexation in large populous counties such as Harris and Montgomery.
Proponents also stated that as a city The Woodlands would qualify for more than $30 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds next year.
The Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns the Woodlands Development Company, commissioned its own study saying that the Novak Consulting Group had grossly underestimated the costs of creating an entirely new law enforcement agency and other city departments, and that a new city would most certainly have to raise taxes significantly to offset costs.
An additional critique authored by former Houston Police Department (HPD) Chief Financial Officer Joe Fenninger and former HPD Executive Assistant Chief of Police Tim Oettmeier estimated the shortfall for law enforcement alone could be as much as $14.5 million.
Under the current model, The Woodlands contracts with both Harris and Montgomery counties for law enforcement and has lower taxes and crime than neighboring cities. In 2021, Niche.com named the township the “Best City to Live in America.”
One of the two board members who voted against presenting incorporation on the ballot this year, Ann Snyder, thanked residents “for ratifying our successful form of government.”
Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack (R-Pct. 3), a vocal opponent of incorporation, took to social media to celebrate the election results.
“In The Woodlands, we still believe in smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and limited power, which is why voters were overwhelmingly against incorporation all along,” Noack said. “I’m proud we will remain a Township, as well as the best place in America to live, and I know our best days are still ahead.”
The Woodlands Board of Directors could place the incorporation issue on the ballot again as early as next May, but this week’s election indicates little local interest in abandoning the township model.
On Tuesday night, the Preserve The Woodlands PAC sent out a statement celebrating the results and writing, “The outcome of this election sends a clear and indisputable message that the people of The Woodlands do not want to turn our resident-run community into a city.”
“We call on the Township Board to accept that incorporation is not the will of the voters, and not in the best interest of this community. It’s time to put this ill-conceived, expensive, and risky idea behind us.”
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.