CLEVELAND — The first thing you notice is how vast it is.
Land stretches across the horizon as far as the eye can see. So, too, does construction.
As you exit State Highway 99, about 40 miles northeast of Houston, development appears endless until you reach the thicket of pine trees that surround this stretch of unincorporated Liberty County.
The area known as Colony Ridge spans 33,000 acres, with nearly 42,000 lots of land — and thousands still for sale. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 residents now call the area home, depending on who you ask, and the numbers are growing.
The largely Latino newcomers have been drawn to Colony Ridge over the past decade by the promise of low down payments — ¿No crédito? ¡No problema! — and eye-catching marketing, in the form of countless red signs along the development’s winding streets.
But in recent days, Colony Ridge has caught some other eyes as well, farther away, in the state’s capital.
Weeks of conservative media reports and months of fervent buzz online from critics of the development have stoked the fire of top Texas Republicans. Colony Ridge is a hotbed for drug cartels and violence, say some conservative politicians and media outlets, and a borderline “sanctuary city” for immigrants.
“Some reports claim Colony Ridge may have become a magnet for people from around the world who are not U.S. citizens,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in a blog post. Patrick, who flew over Colony Ridge via helicopter with Texas Department of Public Safety officials last week, cited environmental, public safety and educational concerns in his post.
Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in Sept. 25, telling conservative radio host Dana Loesch he wants the Texas Legislature to take action during a special session starting Monday to address “serious concerns” about the development.
Abbott has not responded to requests for more specific details on what action he wants the Legislature to take, but his special session agenda published Thursday calls for “legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership” in Colony Ridge.
So how did this rural, majority-Latino community capture the attention of the highest levels of state government? Is it truly a hotbed of cartel activity? And how did this former colonia — an unincorporated community typically found near the border with Mexico that lacks essential services — turn into one of the fastest-growing communities in the Houston area?
All the right buzzwords
On Thursday afternoon, at the invitation of the developers, brothers William “Trey” Harris and John Harris, a party of 18 politicians, staffers and representatives from the Texas attorney general’s office toured the area. Four members of the Texas House of Representatives — Baytown Republican Briscoe Cain, Houston Democrat Christina Morales, Spring Republican Valoree Swanson and Smithville Republican Stan Gerdes — participated in the tour and information session.
The kinds of houses in Colony Ridge’s six subdivisions vary from street to street, from ramshackle buildings to mobile homes to finely built, ranch-style houses with freshly mowed lawns and newly paved driveways.
Other areas in the development are minimally executed, or works-in-progress. Plywood frames and piles of building material offer hints of what future streets could be. Throughout Colony Ridge, there are few sidewalks and no road shoulders.
The lawmakers in attendance said any legislative action needs to be backed by facts on the ground, and they didn’t see anything to support the recent alarmist media reports.
“From what we’ve seen, it looks a lot like places you might see in East Texas. It looks a lot like my family’s place in Louisiana,” Cain said after the tour.
“I didn’t see anything that I found alarming,” Morales said. “It seems like a normal neighborhood.”
All 25 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Texas delegation disagree, though.
On Saturday, they sent a letter to Abbott and Patrick saying the community holds a “staggering illegal immigrant population,” failing public safety infrastructure and “continuous drug cartel activity.” None of those members or their staffers attended Thursday’s tour.
And on Wednesday, Republican state Reps. Steve Toth, Nate Schatzline, Brian Harrison and Tony Tinderholt published a letter arguing for legislation to “clean up and clean out” the development by putting Liberty County under a conservatorship — essentially a state takeover of the county government.
‘We have more freedom’
After living in Houston for nearly 20 years, Pastor Timoteo Tarango and his wife Melida Tarango kept seeing advertisements for affordable land in Colony Ridge.
They didn’t see themselves living outside the city, but the marketing caught their attention in 2015, they said, prompting them to travel an hour to rural Liberty County to see what the buzz was all about.
It had been raining during their first visit, Pastor Tarango recalls, and when an agent with Terrenos Houston, the Harris brothers’ development company, drove them around the area in a golf cart to see the available lots, there was not much around.
“All of this was nothing but mud,” Tarango said, pointing to the area surrounding his property. “The guy brought me here and said, ‘I have this one, this one and this one. Which one do you want?’ And I told him, ‘OK, I want all three.’ At that time, we paid $24,000 for each lot.”
His plan was to develop each lot and sell them eventually for profit. But the plan changed.
Now one of those lots is the site of their new church, Iglesia Pentecostal Fuego y Poder, which the family is building themselves, with the help of friends and fellow churchgoers.
“We have more freedom, more fresh air. We’ve felt good,” Tarango said. “When we first moved in, you could hear shots fired at night, or on the weekends and stuff. But right now, there are more people coming in, more businesses, more police officers. Now they are taking better care of the area.”
Still, the pastor is worried the county hasn’t kept up with the growth as far as recreation opportunities for residents, especially the younger people.
“I would like to see more help for young people, so that this generation can grow with a healthy mind,” Tarango said.
‘And they’re not even done building’
Before Colony Ridge, most of the area’s land was piney woodlands, some of which was leased to hunters during deer season.
Although there are no historic estimates of how many people used to live in the area that has become the Colony Ridge development, U.S. Census data offers a glimpse of the county’s growth. Around 75,000 people lived in Liberty County in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of July 2022, that number had increased by 35 percent, to 102,000 residents.
The Harrises put Colony Ridge’s population around 40,000. County officials say that is a gross underestimate.
“Immigrants don’t cooperate freely with census takers,” Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader told the Houston Landing. “We don’t have an accurate number of the population.”
The sheriff’s office estimates there are at least 75,000 people throughout the six subdivisions that make up the community.
Cpl. Robert Whitesel has watched Colony Ridge explode in growth over the last four and a half years he has spent with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. He patrols the development often and estimates there are anywhere from 90,000 to 100,000 residents living across all six subdivisions.
“It’s nothing to put 250 to 300 miles a day (on your car during a shift),” Whitesel said, “and they’re not even done building.”
That growth has been acutely felt in the local school district.
In 2015, Cleveland ISD, Colony Ridge’s school district, had fewer than 4,000 students, Communications Director Matt Bieniek said. As of Wednesday, the district had nearly 12,000 students.
Over the past eight years, three additional elementary schools and one middle school have been built to keep up with the population growth. A $125 million bond proposition is on the November ballot to expand educational offerings, which includes a new middle school, a career and technical education center, and plans to convert the existing Cleveland Middle School into a high school campus for freshmen and sophomores to alleviate overcrowding in Cleveland High School.
Regardless of legal status, Bieniek said, all children enrolled in Cleveland ISD will be educated.
“We are very aware of the extensive media coverage we’ve been getting for this, and we are aware that there is a political spin that’s being put on it,” Bieniek said. “We are staying objective, and we are bound by state law to educate every student that enrolls in our district and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
So far, some residents say they are happy with the educational opportunity they’ve found in Colony Ridge.
That’s the case for Paola, who did not want her full name used because she is in the country illegally. She and her husband moved to the area three years ago. They are in their early 30s, from Guatemala and El Salvador, and their 5-year-old daughter was born in the United States.
When they first considered purchasing the land, Paola said they were worried.
“At first, you don’t know if it’s a scam or not,” she said, adding that because of their immigration status, people told them they wouldn’t qualify to own land, or questioned what they would do if they ended up losing their investment.
They decided the risk was worth it. The couple set up an RV on their property and started building their own home little by little, a feat they still are tackling with the help of family and friends.
“We saw the opportunity,” she said. “We do run a risk because we don’t have documents, but we have those goals and plans to have our own home. And we see a nice community.” People are quick to offer help and are always looking out for one another, she added.
“It’s like being in your country out here,” she said.
‘We can’t keep up’
Developer Trey Harris said he hopes Thursday’s tour has eased apprehensions, but is willing to travel to Austin to speak further with legislators.
“The vast majority of what you have heard is incorrect or false information,” he told the Landing Tuesday.
The developers, who have contributed over $1.4 million to Abbott since 2018, said they have not been contacted by the governor or his office, Harris said. “I would like to think that our elected officials would work a little harder digging in and finding facts before they make decisions,” he added. “I’m disappointed they didn’t.”
Local officials say they are caught in a tough spot.
The county’s ability to regulate Colony Ridge is limited, County Judge Jay Knight said. He added that the Harris brothers have not violated any local, state or federal laws he is aware of, but the county’s hands are tied.
“Development rules in Texas favor developers,” he said. “They have a huge lobby, and they don’t want the cradle to be upset.”
Knight has been county judge for four years, but said that when Colony Ridge was first under construction in 2011, basic infrastructure was inadequate — drawing comparisons to the colonia communities along the Mexican border — and developers moved too fast.
The county has little oversight of development in the unincorporated area, Knight said. Water and sewer are independently supplied to the development. And there is a two-year holding period during which Colony Ridge is responsible for road upkeep before the county can take over maintenance. Knight said he has worked with the Harris brothers to secure adequate detention and water fencing ponds after the development cleared the trees, but that he can’t do much more.
Colony Ridge is desperate for resources, Knight said. Whether that’s supplying the community with recreational spaces, addressing environmental concerns, crime or the rising school district population.
“You can’t change momentum,” he said. “You can’t control, but you can manage through negotiation, education.”
The sheriff’s office also is playing catch-up.
“As a department, we can’t keep up,” Rader said, referring to the 10 officers who are contracted by the development’s property owner’s association. “All you ever hear is bad. That there’s the cartel, Mexican gangs, trafficking and drug houses, according to Fox (News).”
Rader and the rest of his team acknowledge there are violent criminals in Colony Ridge and cartels do operate there, but those incidents are no more flagrant in Liberty County than other parts of Houston and Texas.
Regardless of residents’ legal status, Rader continued, not everyone living in Colony Ridge is a criminal. “Folks that are living there are good people,” he said.
“It’s frustrating for law enforcement,” Knight said. “But not developers.”
Many residents across Liberty County fear immigrants in the country illegally moving to the area, but growth and change are inevitable.
“You can’t blame people for coming to participate in the American Dream,” he said.
Staff writers Monroe Trombly, Angelica Perez, Danya Pérez and Paul Cobler contributed to this report.