A massive, controversial development northeast of Houston has become a flashpoint for conservative concerns about immigration and public safety, and soon could share the spotlight during an upcoming special session of the Texas Legislature. 

“Serious concerns have been raised about what’s going on in this Colony Ridge area,” Gov. Greg Abbott told conservative radio host Dana Loesch last Tuesday. “We’re trying to put together as much information as possible so that I can add this to the special session.” 

Abbott was responding to weeks of reports in conservative media alleging Colony Ridge, a development started in 2011 in Liberty County, is a “magnet for illegal immigrants” and potential hotbed for drug cartel activity. 

In its early days, the development often was compared to a “colonia,” or an unincorporated community typically found near the border with Mexico that lacks essential services. 

The reports have caught the eye of Republican politicians from Texas, including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who have begun calling attention to Colony Ridge in recent days. 

Trey Harris, who operates the development along with his brother, John Harris, said “the vast majority of what you have heard is incorrect or false information.”

The pair are prominent GOP donors, including to Abbott, and say the controversy grew out of a local dispute over the development’s rapid growth. Neither has been contacted by Abbott about his concerns, they said Tuesday morning. 

“I think he’s a good guy and a good governor,” Trey Harris said. “I think he’s grossly misinformed about Colony Ridge. I’m surprised I didn’t receive a call.”

It is unclear what action Abbott wants legislators to take on the development during the upcoming special session, but he said during the interview he is concerned Colony Ridge is flouting the state’s ban on so-called “sanctuary cities.”

Patrick, president of the Texas Senate, said he is considering holding hearings about Colony Ridge during the special session. 

State lawmakers have been expecting to gather in Austin Oct. 9 for a special session centered around school vouchers, although Abbott has not released an agenda for the session. 

In a letter to state lawmakers, John Harris, president of Colony Ridge, Inc., called the reports of thousands of immigrants in the country illegally and cartel activity nothing more than “salacious rumors and lies” and invited them to tour the community later this week to see for themselves. 

“We have followed the law fully, including: screening all customers for potential terrorism/narcotics trafficking, following anti-discrimination laws, and adhering to all county ordinances, environmental regulations, and model subdivision rules,” Harris wrote. “Further, allegations of drug cartel connections to Colony Ridge are preposterous and unfounded.”

Liberty County officials say action is needed, but not to combat immigrants or to declare war on a drug cartel compound. Estimates on the community’s population vary, but officials agree the population has exploded in recent years and the county is struggling to keep up. 

“We’re just seeing an influx of people,” said Billy Knox, a deputy chief with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. “I think some of the people are reporting there’s 75,000 people in here. … We only have three people out here for 75,000 people. The main concern is being able to provide deputies to cover the area.”

Knox said there may be cartel activity in Liberty County, but nothing that is out of the ordinary for any other county in the border state of Texas. 

Liberty County Judge Jay Knight said, to his knowledge, the Colony Ridge developer has followed every local and state law.

“Yes, there’s been quite a bit written about it, and I think some of those things have probably been exaggerated,” said Knight, who is a Republican. “Everyone wants to live the American Dream, and this was an area that was opened up to persons that want to realize the American Dream in some form or fashion.”

The comments from Harris and county officials have done little to tamp down on the political fervor surrounding the development, which advertises in Spanish low-cost options to buy property and build a home. 

Harris is the president Colony Ridge, Inc., but the community advertises under the name Terrenos Houston. 

All 25 Republican members of Texas’ U.S. House of Representatives delegation on Saturday sent a letter to Abbott and Patrick claiming the community holds a “staggering illegal immigrant population,” failing public safety infrastructure and “continuous drug cartel activity.” The letter encourages Abbott and Patrick to investigate the community and take action, if necessary. 

Patrick on Thursday published his findings from a trip to Colony Ridge last week. The lieutenant governor said he drove through and flew over the 50-square-mile property and called it the largest and fastest-growing development he has seen in Texas. Developers estimate 40,000 people live in the community, a number that could surpass 100,000 within a decade, Patrick wrote. 

Patrick attempted to tie the development’s growth to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, a frequent political cudgel for Republican lawmakers, but he provided no evidence to support claims that “Colony Ridge may have become a magnet for people from around the world who are not U.S. citizens.”

Patrick also noted environmental concerns around the development and said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would investigate the community. Some of the reports allege the community lacks proper infrastructure for sewage and water and is a public health risk. 

In his letter, Harris also refuted that allegation, writing the subdivisions have fully engineered sewer, water, power and road infrastructure.

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    Knight said he was happy to hear state officials are investigating and plan to take action on the development so lawmakers can find out “what is the truth” behind the recent conservative media reports. 

    He added he is not sure what legislative action Abbott is planning. He said he had encouraged the legislature to pass laws to give counties more control over developments in their jurisdiction. 

    “It’s one of those instances where this thing got big in a hurry and it got alarming to folks,” Knight said. “As growth comes, change comes.” 

    The Texas Department of Public Safety already provides state troopers to help patrol the community, but Knox said he would like to see greater DPS support and a grant to allow the sheriff’s office to pay overtime so more deputies can be assigned to the area. 

    Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

    Asked about the growing political storm, Knight noted that 2024 is an election year. 

    “You have Republicans that are quite concerned with the conservative nature of politics and change, then you have the Democrats that are the opposite, so to speak,” Knight said. “Somewhere in the middle is usually where the truth is.”

    Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Trey Harris, who operates the development with his brother, John Harris.

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    Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...