Residents of the Village of Creekside Park have rallied to oppose the impending construction of a Walmart store planned near the village. The proposed Augusta Woods Village development, which includes Walmart and multi-family housing, is located 100 feet south of The Woodlands boundaries, in unincorporated Spring.
At a June 18 Woodlands Township Board of Director’s meeting, the Coalition Against Walmart, which is comprised of a group of Creekside Park residents, solicited the assistance of the township in a quest to stop construction of the 186,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter. The store is planned to be located at Kuykendahl Road and Augusta Pines Drive, just south of Timber Creek Elementary school.
Michael O’Neal, director of information for the coalition, said his children will attend Timber Creek Elementary. O’Neal asked the board to consider his concerns regarding the proposed construction.
“Walmart brings 6,000 vehicles per day,” he said. “This is something we can’t have right behind our elementary school.”
The proximity of the school to the proposed site creates a safety risk for children, said Kira Becker, director of communications for the coalition.
“What will happen with the gas stations near the school?” Becker said. “What are the day-to-day implications for our community? What happens if Walmart—which loses $1.3 billion to shoplifting—what happens if a shoplifter runs? Does the school get shut down? Do we have the resources for our first responders to keep on top of that?”
According to a fact sheet distributed at a Creekside Park homeowner’s association meeting by Dan Morales, director of public affairs and government relations for Walmart, trucks will use Augusta Pines Drive for deliveries.
“We’re asking to move the driveways to the middle of the development, and Walmart said ‘We don’t have our truck deliveries mingled with customer traffic,’” O’Neal said.
Morales did not respond to requests for comment regarding this story as of press time.
Construction on Walmart is due to begin this fall, with an opening date of fall 2016, according to the fact sheet.
At the June township board meeting, director Ed Robb said the coalition’s efforts will likely be futile.
“This project will not be successfully stopped,” Robb said. “This is private property outside our jurisdiction. We are not even in charge of roads. I think influence is what [the township] can most bring to the table, and we will do that enthusiastically. But if the energies of the group are to stop it, they will not be successful.”
The Conroe ISD board of trustees is considering a $511 million bond package following a presentation by the district’s Facilities Planning Committee during the June 16 board of trustees meeting.
The committee recommended the $510.97 million bond to accommodate a new high school, intermediate school and two elementary schools in the Oak Ridge North feeder zone as well as a new junior high school in the Conroe High School feeder zone.
The board will consider approval of a final bond amount and placement of the referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot during its August meeting.
There were 56,400 students enrolled in the district in the 2014-15 school year and an additional 7,000 students are projected to be added in the next four years. Superintendent Don Stockton said the proposal could help the district address demand.
“It is a solid proposal, and I thank the committee for their work,” Stockton said. “The goal was to meet the instructional and growth needs for the next three to five years. The recommendation reflects [the committee’s] belief that it is going to meet our needs.”
Under the committee recommendation, bond funds would also help expand the capacity of Stewart Elementary School in the Woodforest subdivision by 200 students. The school opened in the 2014-15 school year with a capacity of 800 students with the intention to expand in the near future.
Major classroom renovations at Austin Elementary and Conroe High schools are also being considered under the bond. The renovations would be completed in multiple phases and could be executed without disruption of instructional time.
Funds could also be used to build 10 new science classrooms at Knox Junior High School in The Woodlands, upgrade safety and security features at some existing schools and for maintenance and improvements at older facilities.
The committee also recommended the district purchase land for future schools using bond funds in order to avoid a larger increase of land prices in premium locations, such as near Riley Fuzzel and Rayford roads near the Grand Parkway.
Board of trustees President John Husbands said the new campuses proposed in the bond package are located within areas of the district experiencing rapid student population growth.
“I saw nothing outside the bounds of practical, reasonable and needed,” Husbands said. “I won’t be at all surprised if [the final bond amount] ends up being slightly less than that amount. We always try to whittle. We are blessed as a district, and sometimes we can handle some things out of general funds. It is a starting place, nothing more and nothing less, but it is in the ballpark.”
Following the presentation, the board of trustees voted to approve the purchase of a 15-acre parcel of land in the Oak Ridge North feeder zone with existing funds. The land would be used to accommodate a planned elementary school.
Montgomery County is planning for a new bond election after voters turned down a $350 million proposal May 9. A date for a new bond is still being debated among county commissioners and County Judge Craig Doyal. Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack supports a November vote while others are in favor of waiting until November 2016.
Commissioners Mike Meador of Precinct 1 and Jim Clark of Precinct 4 have each said they likely would not be in favor of a November 2015 bond, but would rather bring a proposal to county voters next year.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said he would be open to considering a November 2015 vote but expressed concern about having enough time to compile a list of projects that could meet voter approval.
“I’m not going to say I won’t support another bond issue this year,” Riley said. “But I don’t know that there is time to put together a bond issue everyone is going to accept.”
To establish a bond election, three of the four county commissioners would need to vote in favor of the proposal.
Doyal said the court would have to decide on a November 2015 bond vote by Aug. 11.
The future of a bond
What the commissioners do all agree on, however, is that another bond election is needed.
“There will be a new bond, and no doubt Woodlands Parkway was an issue,” Doyal said. “We’ll probably take a lot of projects out [of the next proposal] and put together a plan that everyone can support.”
More than 57 percent of voters, or 16,222, opposed the bond, while nearly 43 percent, or 12,144, voted in favor of it. The bond drew about 10 percent of the county’s registered voters, 4 percent more than the 2011 Montgomery County bond proposal. That bond proposal also failed to meet voter approval. This year’s bond proposed by the county did not include a county property tax increase.
“The Commissioners Court must make a decision—do we learn from the failure and proceed immediately with a bond the community can support, or do we procrastinate and do nothing?” Noack said. “To me, the answer is obvious—we move forward with a bond this November.”
Clark said he likely would not have enough time to conduct the appropriate thoroughfare studies in time for a November 2015 bond.
“From our precinct’s [perspective], I don’t even think we should even consider bringing [a bond] back for November,” he said. “I need to get some studies [completed] to substantiate it. I think the only way I’ll have time is do it the following November.”
Woodlands voters overwhelmingly opposed the bond, with 8,247 of the 9,888 total voters voting against it. However the proposal garnered relatively low support in other parts of the county as well.
“If we are to be honest, the bond failed because of [the Woodlands Parkway extension],” Noack said. “You can negate the biggest hurdle by removing the parkway [from a future bond proposal].”
This year’s bond included 77 projects among the four county precincts. Among those items was a six-mile extension of Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Hwy. 249 located in Precinct 2.
Noack said the Woodlands Parkway extension should be removed from any future bond proposal.
“We must … remove the Woodlands Parkway extension, prioritize projects based on need and establish a separate fund to address maintenance projects,” he said. “If the court is willing to make these wise changes, I believe the voters will enthusiastically support the bond.”
Riley said he would consider removing the Woodlands Parkway extension from a future bond.
“If I had to say today if I would include Woodlands Parkway in the next bond, I would say no,” he said. “But I don’t believe Woodlands Parkway is the only reason this bond election failed.”
Riley said he believed some voters perceived the bond included “pet projects” and funding for projects they felt were unnecessary.
Gordy Bunch served on the Montgomery County Mobility Committee, which was charged by Commissioners Court to compile a list of needed projects for the bond. Bunch, is a director on The Woodlands Township board, resigned from the committee in March after it included the Woodlands Parkway in its list of projects.
“County officials need to consult professional transportation experts, eliminate Woodlands Parkway from the plan, delete maintenance projects, and deliver near-term immediate needs planned in a county-wide mobility study for reconsideration by voters,” Bunch said.
In addition to the Woodlands Parkway extension, opponents of the May bond, including Bunch and the Texas Patriots political action committee, cited what they considered to be unnecessary expenses for maintenance projects in some precincts.
Meador included $11.5 million for what he referred to as “miscellaneous and local street repairs” for Precinct 1. Meador said his list of projects for a future bond election would remain about the same as it was for the May proposal, including money allocated for maintenance projects.
“[My list of projects] is not going to change a lot,” he said. “For those maintenance projects, the only way to fix those major projects on our major thoroughfares is througha bond issue. I will still have those issues on a proposal.”
Doyal said the county does not otherwise have the money for maintenance repairs like those requested by Meador.
“To say that maintaining our existing infrastructure is a poor idea is counterproductive to what needs to be done, [especially] when we have professionals telling us we need to address it,” Doyal said. “We need a maintenance program, but our current budget simply won’t address it. We’ve got to find ways to do that.”
Noack said a solution could be to create a separate fund for maintenance projects throughout the county. Smaller projects could be handled by the county budget while larger ones could be funded by bond money.
“We need to do a better job of explaining the maintenance projects and what those are,” Noack said.
Meador said he believes any future bond proposal should be less than the $350 million put forth to voters in May. To pare down the bond amount to $250 million, Meador said other commissioners would need to remove projects on their list of proposals.
“To me, $350 million is a little too much,” he said. “We can [propose] a $200 [million] to $250 million bond that would pretty much guarantee that we would not have any tax rate increase.”
Noack said the county should hold a series of public meetings to gauge resident input for a list of projects.
The Woodlands Township was the first in what is likely to be several entities to formally request the Commissioner’s Court hold a November 2015 bond vote.
At at June 3 meeting, the township board unanimously adopted a resolution requesting a bond be put forth to voters in November 2015 “expressly excluding the Woodlands Parkway extension.”
Homes in East Shore in The Woodlands are among those for sale in a high-end market. Abigail Loop
The Woodlands residential real estate market is seeing a slowdown this year, and properties priced in the upper spectrums are shifting to a buyer’s market, according to Better Homes and Gardens Homes Sales Real Estate Report.
Overall, the inventory of homes in The Woodlands has risen and home contracts are more sluggish than the year before, despite oil companies moving to the area.
Realtor Kurt Zimmerman of The Zimmerman Team said the anticipation of companies like ExxonMobil moving to The Woodlands area initially spurred a demand for homes— until oil prices plummeted.
“Things got out of balance with the high demand,” he said. “The last two or three years created quite a seller’s market, and then recently this year, with the oil price in the oil industry, [the housing market] suffered some setbacks. I think it’s really affected the higher-end housing market—those homes have slowed down considerably.”
A seller’s market occurs when houses average one to two months on the market, Zimmerman said. A stable market is when houses are on the market three to four months.
“Anything greater than that combined with higher inventory leads to a buyer’s market,” Zimmerman said.
All residential properties priced $600,001 and over are taking eight months or longer to sell, according to the Better Homes and Gardens report. Homes priced below that range are taking 5 months or less to sell.
“[With] the market for the more expensive homes you have fewer potential clients. That makes the market more sensitive to fluctuations in the industry,” he said.
Inventory is up in ’15
The Woodlands enjoyed a period of above-normal demand for housing in 2012-14, created by the ease of securing loans, said Tim Welbes, co-president of The Woodlands Development Company.
Loans were not as easy to obtain in the period prior to 2012 because mortgage-underwriting modifications made it more difficult to qualify for a loan. In addition population growth combined with a low supply of housing led to a high demand.
“So you had several years of pent-up demand, and you had a lack of supply being built,” Welbes said. “Mortgage rates were very low, a number of factors came together in our local market. Exxon[Mobil] and fracking were doing pretty well in Houston, so all of those factors built up a crescendo of housing sales in 2013-14. And now it’s getting back to more homes being built by the builders. There’s no more pent-up demand, so we’re getting back to a normal supply-demand relationship.”
Ken Brand, real estate manager with Better Homes and Gardens, said people were reluctant to sell their homes over the past two years, which created a lack of inventory. Sellers were waiting for the financial climate to improve. Now that the news about lower oil prices has quieted down, inventory is surging due to seller confidence, he said.
“You don’t have screaming headlines,” Brand said. “There were a lot of dire predictions. That has stabilized now. It’s not in the news that [oil prices] are a threatening thing.”
In fact The Woodlands has seen a marked rise in its inventory of homes in 2015, according to the Better Homes and Gardens report. In May of last year, 497 homes were available, but as of this May, 818 homes were available.
Ted Stanley, College Park Village Association president, said residents in his village have noticed the time on the market for houses has lengthened, especially those on the higher end of the price scale.
“I know that there are a few higher-priced houses that are staying on the market longer than they used to,” Stanley said. “Buyers don’t feel like they need to rush into something. I think they’re taking the time—doing more research, making sure they get what they want—trying to find a better deal.”
Sales trending downward
The Woodlands saw a decrease in the number of properties placed under contract by nearly 15 percent compared to two years ago. In April 2013 the number of contracts written was 327, according to the Better Homes and Gardens report. By April 2015 that number had dropped to 279.
From January to April 2014 the year-to-date sales in The Woodlands were 732. For thesame quarter in 2015, the year-to-date sales are 679, a decline of seven percent, according to the Houston Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.
The number of days in which houses in The Woodlands remain for sale has risen by nine days over the course of a year, according to the Better Homes and Gardens report.
Some buyers will postpone purchasing homes until they are sure the financial climate has improved, Brand said, but the sales numbers have improved from the first of the year.
“It’s less of a concern in May then it was in January and February,” he said. “The headlines said [the cost of oil] was ‘the end of the world.’”
The Woodlands is following a similar trend across Houston, with sales down and prices up, according to HAR.
Yet figuring out what is considered normal for a market is subjective, Brand said.
Welbes said the demand in the real estate market in The Woodlands two years ago was above normal.
“Houston was enjoying a market of sales of unprecedented numbers,” he said. “Yes, there are more homes listed, but I think what we’re getting is a return to normalcy, not the extraordinary market of 2013 and 2014. If you look at the number of sales over 10 years, the aberration of [2013-14] is way above the trend line.”
Residential real estate in The Woodlands is at healthy levels, Welbes said.
“It’s a great selection, low mortgage rates, and if you’ve got kiddos going to school, you want to be in a good school district,” he said. “There’s been more than one oil price dip that Houston has dealt with, and then there tends to be a flight to quality. The better master-planned communities are not as impacted as others if the market gets really tough. Places like The Woodlands are doing fairly well.”