'The next generation of development': Single-family communities, H-E-B taking shape in Willis

Model homes are under construction at Republic Grand Ranch, a 5,000-acre custom home community in Willis with more than 500 lots already sold. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)
Model homes are under construction at Republic Grand Ranch, a 5,000-acre custom home community in Willis with more than 500 lots already sold. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)

Model homes are under construction at Republic Grand Ranch, a 5,000-acre custom home community in Willis with more than 500 lots already sold. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)

The number of homes starting construction each quarter within Willis ISD’s boundaries has surged by 600% over the last four years as of the third quarter of 2021, according to Zonda, a housing market research firm.

In addition, a spring 2021 study for WISD by demographics firm Population and Survey Analysts projects about 5,560 new homes by 2025.

“For people from the Houston area, they want to get out of the city. It’s too close; there’s too much going on. Part of [Willis’ attraction] is due to ... flooding,” said Gary Sumner Sr., managing partner of Patten Properties, developer of Republic Grand Ranch off FM 1097. “Pretty much any direction from Houston except north has [flooding] problems.”

Patten Properties is one of several developers with projects underway in the Willis area, including the area’s first H-E-B grocery store.

“The fact that Willis is largely being developed by some of the best developers I think is going to make Willis a destination place to live, almost like The Woodlands but in more of a natural, expansive way,” Patten Properties Vice President Gary Sumner Jr. said.

Residential projects underway

Republic Grand Ranch offers 10 builders for custom homes on lots of at least an acre, Sumner Sr. said. Model homes are under construction.

“We started selling a year ago, and we’ve sold about 500 lots,” Sumner Sr. said in late December.

The community spans 5,000 acres and includes 1,800 lots. However, Sumner Sr. said many families purchase multiple lots.

At the southeast corner of FM 1097 and I-45, the residential component of Moran Ranch is slated to begin in 2022. Jointly developed by Stolz Partners and Satya Inc., the mixed-use development spans 500 acres, including 230 acres for about 900 homes by M/I Homes and Lennar Homes, Stolz Partners founder Will Stolz said.

“I would think you’d start seeing the actual homes coming out of the ground in the summer to early fall,” he said.

West of I-45, Caldwell Cos. is developing Chambers Creek, an age-restricted community. Chambers Creek will include 3,500 homes on 1,200 acres with home sales beginning this summer and a grand opening in the fall for the community’s private golf course, said Jennifer Symons, vice president of marketing.

Meanwhile, Health Melton, regional president of The Howard Hughes Corp.—developer of The Woodlands—reported 682 home sales as of Dec. 21 out of the 4,500 homes planned in The Woodlands Hills, a master-planned community on FM 830.

“We were running out of opportunities for residents to buy homes in The Woodlands, [so] we acquired The Woodlands Hills just 15 minutes up by I-45 ... to service that need,” he said.

Melton said The Woodlands Hills has about eight to 10 years remaining until build out and has plans for more home options in 2022, including a low-maintenance “villa” style.

Home construction on the rise

Sumner Sr. said he believes residents are flocking to the Willis area because of its proximity to I-45, medical facilities in The Woodlands, employment centers and natural amenities, including Lake Conroe and the Sam Houston National Forest.

Census data shows WISD added 9,599 residents from 2010-20.

“Whether you have kids in the school district or not, it’s very obvious that we are growing as a community,” WISD Superintendent Tim Harkrider said. “I think it’s great for the community. There’s more resources as things come here; there’s less travel.”

Data from Zonda shows 357 homes started construction in the third quarter of 2021, up 39% year over year.

As The Woodlands Hills and Moran Ranch touch Willis and Conroe city limits, Melton said development will boost the region’s economy.

“Just talking about the ad valorem tax value that we’ll create, we’ll create over $2 billion just in The Woodlands Hills alone, so it’s a sizable impact to both those cities,” Melton said.

Roads, businesses

In addition to new homes, The Market at Willis Shopping Center, a 69.7-acre development in Moran Ranch, broke ground in the fall. The center will be anchored by H-E-B.

Phase 1 underway includes more than 200,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and service space. Community Impact Newspaper previously reported Phase 2 will begin in the third quarter with retail, restaurant and multifamily space. Fidelis, the developer, previously said the center will open in 2022.

Lisa Helfman, senior director of H-E-B public affairs for Houston, said in a statement H‑E‑B is not able to provide an opening timeline until construction is further along.

“Supply chain delays have affected progress. We know our future shoppers in Willis and Magnolia are excited for these stores to open—as are we—and we thank them for their patience as we work to complete them,” she said.

Stolz said plans for Moran Ranch include 170 acres for commercial uses as well as building an I-45 frontage road between FM 1097 and FM 830.

“We’re in permits now for that with the Texas Department of Transportation, so we expect to have that permit in hand by early next summer and be under construction with that frontage road [in 2022],” he said.

Additionally, two ongoing TxDOT projects and a third beginning in early 2022 will collectively widen FM 1097 from I-45 to Blueberry Hills for $45.8 million, according to TxDOT.

“[Willis is] far out when you look at it from the perspective of how it relates to downtown [Houston], but it’s very convenient when you look at it from the perspective of Conroe or The Woodlands,” Stolz said. “I think this is just sort of the next generation of development to service those growing areas.”
By Anna Lotz

Editor, Tomball/Magnolia & Conroe/Montgomery

Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor for the Tomball/Magnolia edition. She began covering the communities of Conroe and Montgomery as well in 2020. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.