Growth spurs improvement projects in north Conroe, Willis

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Anticipated development near the FM 1097 corridor has incited construction of new mobility improvement projects, public safety facilities and schools to meet demand from the region’s growing population.

Two major developers—The Howard Hughes Corporation and Caldwell Companies—purchased tracts of land near FM 1097 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Local officials said thousands of new homes could be built in the communities in the next few years.

Coupled with other ongoing developments nearby—which will add an additional 2,850 new homes themselves, according to a 2015 Willis ISD demographic study—the expected population growth will challenge local municipalities and school districts, Montgomery County Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said.

“Howard Hughes and Caldwell [Companies] are two or three years away,” Meador said. “But we have subdivisions like Lake Conroe Hills and [White Oak Ranch] filling up. It is a challenge for everybody.”

Growth spurs improvement projects in north Conroe, Willis
A growing corridor

Officials said the Howard Hughes  property—located west of I-45 between FM 1097 and FM 830—will be the major catalyst to spur commercial growth in the area. The community is one of about 25 active developments in the area, according to the WISD study conducted by Impact Demographics.

According to information released by Howard Hughes in 2015, the 2,000-acre property could feature about 4,800 new homes. Additional details about the development have not been released.

“It is kind of like the chicken and the egg,” Meador said. “Hughes has already stepped up, and they are fixing to move. So you are going to see retail popping up to serve that community.”

Similarly, Caldwell Companies owns 900 acres of land north side Longstreet Road. According to the WISD study, the development could include construction of thousands of new homes—however, official plans have not been announced by the company.

Willis City Manager Hector Forestier said additional land for the development may also be sold next year. He said construction on the developments could start by the end of 2017, but the ongoing oil and gas downturn has caused some unexpected challenges.

“The economy has created some issues for the developers,” Forestier said. “We are hopefully going to see an increase in population moving to the area for jobs mostly related to the gas and oil industry, and that is what they are banking on.”

Additionally, a 600-acre tract of land east of I-45—located between FM 830 and Longstreet Road—is in the process of being sold, Meador said. Details regarding the development of the land have not been released because the sale is not final, but he said the property could accommodate mixed-use development.

Growth spurs improvement projects in north Conroe, Willis
Preparing for growth

Even though officials have not broken ground on the Howard Hughes development, local municipalities are laying the groundwork necessary to start construction. The Conroe City Council approved the creation of two new municipal utility districts—MUDs
No. 100 and No. 101—during its Dec. 8 meeting.

The Willis City Council is expected to consider a similar resolution in early 2017, Forestier said. If approved by Willis, property owners within the MUD boundaries could petition the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to create the MUDs, or they could be created by the state Legislature.

If created, the MUDs would be able to levy taxes and seek voter approval for bond referendums intended to build utility and road infrastructure.

Conroe City Attorney Marcus Winberry said the cities are negotiating a possible adjustment to their extraterritorial jurisdiction lines so  MUD No. 101 lies entirely in Conroe and MUD No. 100 lies entirely in Willis.

New students living in the area of the incoming developments will attend WISD schools. Superintendent Tim Harkrider said the district is preparing for future growth by building a new elementary school on M.P. Clark Road near the intersection with Longmire Road.

Construction of the $26.8 million school will begin in the spring and is slated to open in 2018. WISD will pay for the project with funds from the $109.5 million bond election approved by voters in November 2015.

“Our bond came at the perfect time. It is going to allow us to take on that first wave of new folks,” Harkrider said.

He said a $5.2 million expansion Brabham Middle School will accommodate an additional 250 students starting fall 2017. The expansion includes new sports courts.

However, Harkrider said the district may need to prepare a new bond referendum in a few years, possibly to help the district build its second high school.

“The new facilities from our last bond will be completed by August 2018,” Harkrider said. “At that point I think it will be imperative to start looking at attendance numbers for 2020 through 2024.”

First responders are also preparing for additional houses in the area. Conroe Fire Department Chief Ken Kreger said the north Conroe area has some of the  department’s slowest response times. To improve services, the city is building its seventh fire station at the southwest corner of League Line Road and FM 1097.

Construction crews will break ground on the $5.2 million fire station in January, and the project will take about 10 months to complete, Kreger said.

“Our response time to that area can take almost 10 minutes,” he said. “That is just not acceptable. Our goal is somewhere around three to four minutes, so it was pretty easy to find that was going to be the next location.”

The North Montgomery County Fire Department, which serves the Willis area, is searching for land to build a new fire station as well. While discussions are preliminary, Forestier said the new fire station would serve the new communities. The department last built Fire Station No. 94 in 2014 at 13701 W. FM 1097, Willis.

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Preventing traffic congestion

Montgomery County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the cities of Conroe and Willis are undertaking several transportation projects that will address traffic congestion created by the developments.

“You are fixing to increase the number of vehicles that are traveling those corridors on a daily basis,” Meador said. “It is now or never. We have been putting this off long enough.”

The county partnered with TxDOT to expand 2 miles of FM 1097 from two to four lanes and add a continuous left-turn lane between I-45 and Anderson Road that will break ground in 2018. Meanwhile, a separate TxDOT project widening FM 1097 between I-45 and Hwy. 75 in Willis is about halfway complete.

TxDOT and the county also plan to expand the section of FM 1097 between Anderson Road and Blueberry Hill by 2022, and have a long-term plan to expand the thoroughfare between Blueberry Hill and Bentwater Drive and replace the bridge that crosses Lake Conroe as early as 2030.

“Partnering with county and local municipalities is beneficial for several reasons, one being that it allows us to combine funding to bring some projects to fruition sooner,” TxDOT spokesperson Deidrea George said.

The city of Willis is building a new road—the West Side Loop—that will connect FM 1097 to Old Montgomery Road in early 2017. It will allow TxDOT to convert the southbound I-45 feeder road at the FM 1097 intersection into a one-way road, Forestier said.

He said the city has also talked with Howard Hughes about building a north-south thoroughfare on the west side of I-45. However, he said plans for the roadway—M.P. Clark Road—are preliminary.

To the south, the city of Conroe is considering the expansion of FM 830 and will begin efforts to expand Longmire Road next year, said Tommy Woolley, assistant director of projects and transportation.

There are 10 active developments near the Longmire and League Line intersection, and five along
FM 830—including the Howard Hughes property. Conroe has begun studying the need for widening FM 830 from two to four lanes—with an additional left-turn lane—between Old Montgomery Road and Hwy. 75. The city commissioned a pre-engineering report from consulting firms The Goodman Corporation and Walter P. Moore that was released in November.

According to the study, widening FM 830 would improve mobility on FM 1097, and Longstreet and League Line roads. Woolley said the city will submit a proposal for the $14 million project in 2017 to the Houston-Galveston Area Council for funding from its Transportation Improvement Program. The TIP program allows regional authorities to use federal financial assistance for  local transportation improvement projects.

The widening of Longmire Road between FM 3083 and League Line Road will also help reduce congestion along the major thoroughfares, Woolley said. The project will go to bid in mid-2017 and will widen the roadway from two to four lanes and an additional left-turn lane.

“We try to be proactive and get mobility improvements done before the development happens,” Woolley said. “It helps the community as a whole.”

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Jesse has reported on health care, development, transportation, as well as city, county and state news since 2011. After a stint as a photojournalist in in the Rio Grande Valley, he joined Community Impact Newspaper in February 2014. In February 2015 he was promoted to editor of the Conroe | Montgomery edition.

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