A little over a month ago with Halloween approaching, a sprawling subdivision in Liberty County called “Colony Ridge” was the monster hiding under Republican state lawmakers’ beds.
They spoke of a frightening place controlled by drug cartels and human traffickers that even law enforcement avoids.
Gov. Greg Abbott was so alarmed he declared Colony Ridge a top state priority by adding it to his special legislative session agenda. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton both called for the Legislature to address the rapidly growing housing development.
Paxton labeled it an “illegal alien settlement.” Patrick attempted to tie the development to the influx of immigrants arriving at the southern U.S. border.
After the special session began Oct. 9, lawmakers faced their fears, lifted up the bed skirt and looked their monster in the eye.
What they found was more equivalent to a PG-rated Goosebumps movie rather than the stuff of nightmares: a development marketed to low-income homebuyers growing its population so quickly that it is straining Liberty County resources.
“Why are we even here doing this?” state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, asked during an Oct. 9 committee hearing in which Liberty County officials refuted the drug cartel and crime allegations.
Following at least three legislative committee hearings dedicated to the topic, no legislation addressing Colony Ridge passed during the 30-day special session.
The session ended Nov. 7 without a deal for any of Abbott’s priorities, including school vouchers and money for border security. That same day, Abbott announced another special session — the fourth this year — to tackle those leftover tasks and appropriate funds for Department of Public Safety troopers working overtime to supplement Liberty County’s overburdened sheriff’s department.
The only bill that gained any traction in the previous special session was $40 million in discretionary spending for DPS included in a border barrier bill. That measure was approved by the Senate, but failed to pass the House.
Abbott’s current Colony Ridge marching orders for legislators are more narrow than his request in early October. The first proclamation asked for “legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership” at the sprawling development, while the latest ask is only for additional DPS funding.
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 and available land.
The development attracted attention this summer when weeks of right-wing media reports alleging the area is a hotbed of criminal activity caught the eye of state officials, culminating in the sudden push for legislation.
One group of four state House members even called for legislation to place the entire Liberty County government under a conservatorship, or state takeover, “to clean up and clean out Colony Ridge.”
Liberty County Judge Jay Knight called the conversation in Austin “frustrating.”
“When the facts and figures came out, many of which were exaggerated, it got everyone’s attention,” Knight said Thursday. “Everyone wanted to blame somebody, but in reality, we followed the law as we’re required to do.”
John Harris, CEO and president of the development, traveled to Austin to testify before the legislative committees during the special session. In an interview Thursday, Harris said the hearings were helpful for clearing up misinformation.
“To me, now that the state hearings are there, that’s public information,” Harris said. “Everybody’s got testimony about what the crime is really like. That’s been helpful for us.”
In an Oct. 30 Senate Finance Committee hearing, DPS Executive Director Steve McCraw, an Abbott appointee, refuted the allegations that prompted the hearing, telling lawmakers his agency has not encountered unusual cartel activity or areas where DPS or local police are afraid to go.
“I could make a great case that the areas where we’re operating here — same population, similar demographics — where the crime is substantially more here in Austin than it is in this particular community,” McCraw said.
Harris operates the development with his brother, Trey Harris, who is an Abbott supporter and donor. Trey Harris last month called Abbott “grossly misinformed” about Colony Ridge and said he was “disappointed” in the governor’s comments.
The Harris brothers also invited state lawmakers to tour the development on Oct. 5, before the special session began. A bipartisan group of four legislators, along with staffers representing a handful of other lawmakers, accepted the invitation and remarked afterward that they had not seen any evidence of cartels or other serious crime.
“From what we’ve seen, it looks a lot like places you might see in East Texas,” Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Creek, said. “It looks a lot like my family’s place in Louisiana.”
As the Legislature again convenes in Austin, Knight reiterated earlier requests for lawmakers to consider changes to a section of Texas law that governs the county regulation of subdivisions. The real issue with Colony Ridge for local officials is simply the rate of uncontrolled growth overwhelming local schools and municipal services, Knight said.
The number of students served by Cleveland Independent School District, which includes Colony Ridge, has tripled since 2015, CISD officials said. A $125 million school bond to renovate and build several buildings was rejected by voters on Tuesday.
“The ability to bring economic development is a good thing, but the rapid pace of a development could be a hindrance in the short term,” Knight said.
Harris said he supports an honest conversation about the development.
“The hardest part is to see the mischaracterization of who our customers are, like all the cartel stories, a lot of it is just excuses for people to be racist,” he said.