Following a year in which The Woodlands Township lowered its property tax rate despite spending millions on projects and drought recovery, as well as making a significant decision against an incorporation vote, the township faces transportation and mobility concerns and a new set of projects in 2013.
"I'm very honored and proud to look back on all the accomplishments of 2012," said Bruce Tough, chairman of the township Board of Directors. "I look forward to 2013 to implementing all of the board policies and priorities that the board set at the strategic planning meeting [in November]."
The upcoming year may not see any movement on the issue of incorporation as the board opted not to hold a vote in 2014 on whether to become a city. Residential feedback from surveys and governance forums against incorporation, as well as a significant tax impact on the residents, did not outweigh the benefits of incorporation, Tough said.
However, Tough said incorporation of The Woodlands could be "inevitable" and could come about from the interest of the residents. He said the biggest motivator toward future incorporation could be transportation and mobility, which he sees as the biggest concern facing the community in 2013.
"I really think that's going to be our central focus," Tough said.
The township board recently created a Transportation Ad Hoc Committee. The committee focuses on mobility issues and the community's transition to an Urban Transit District, which came as a result of a new U.S. Census Bureau designation in March, Tough said. He said the committee hopes to continue and to improve the three park and rides, which are among the most successful in the country, with more than 800,000 annual trips and an 85 percent fare box return.
Tough said the committee will also work with Montgomery County, The Woodlands Development Company and other municipalities on mobility projects, including the proposed Hwy. 242 and Research Forest flyovers over I-45. With The Woodlands, Shenandoah and Oak Ridge North continuing to grow, Tough believes the projects are necessary.
"If it's not addressed, there's going to be a gridlock," he said. "There's just no doubt about that. You can't say that if nothing is done at those intersections that it's going to get better. It's just not."
With incorporation as a possible future outcome, Tough said the committee will also begin to examine The Woodlands Road Utility District, how it operates and how best to take over its operations should The Woodlands become a city.
Following the record-setting drought of 2011, reforestation will be one of the township's biggest projects, with 1,350 container trees of 5, 15 and 30 gallons to be planted in the first phase early in 2013, said John Powers, assistant general manager of community services for the township. Powers said another 91,000 seedlings will be given to residents to plant on Arbor Day along major thoroughfares and in community forests.
He said the container trees will cost $200,000, while the smaller seedlings will cost about $5,000. The township will plant 10,000 container trees and 250,000 seedlings over five years, Powers said. According to the township, The Woodlands had more than 52,000 dead trees as a result of the 2011 drought.
The township has already begun addressing the need for sports fields, with artificial turf being installed on six fields at Bear Branch and Alden Bridge sports parks. Powers said the turf installation should be completed in February and costs about $3 million. Another $6.4 million was set aside in 2013 for recreational facility development, with the bulk of the money likely going to develop four or five fields on a 25-acre site at Gosling Road near Research Forest Drive costing between $3.5 million and $4.5 million.
"Once we have the land conveyed (from the Development Company), we could do this project in 10 months," said Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the township. "We just need two months to bid out the project."
The continued development of parks and pathways in The Villager of Creekside Park is also a primary focus in 2013, with the 14th village park and pool estimated to open by the beginning of pool season June 1, Powers said. The $2 million Wendt Woods Park includes a pool, tennis court, sports field, playground equipment, parking and restrooms, and is located on 16 acres. The township and Development Company will each pay for half of the project.
Two smaller parks—Liberty Square and Rockwall Square—should open in the summer in Creekside Park, Powers said, while construction on another four miles of pathways is expected to begin, connecting the existing pathway to the the Creekside Forest Elementary School.
Not all new projects involve new parks and pathways, however, as the new Central Fire Station should be completed in the spring on Grogan's Mill Road, the last of the major fire stations scheduled for construction.
The first phase of the pedestrian skybridge at Waterway Square will also be completed in 2013, Powers said, which includes a bridge across the Waterway, an elevator and a stage for performances. About $1.9 million of the $2.9 million project will be completed this year, scheduled in time for the Red, Hot & Blue Festival on July 4.
While the township lowered its property tax rate in 2012 from 32.5 to 31.73 cents per $100 valuation, Tough is unsure whether residents can expect another drop in 2013. However, he does not anticipate a significant increase either as the community weathered the historic 2011 drought and still managed to lower the rate last year.
"That was a huge impact cost, but we had capital reserves," Tough said. "We're ready for anything that can be thrown at us."
Nick Wolda, president of The Woodlands Convention & Visitors Bureau, said sales tax revenue rose more than 15 percent over 2011 numbers while hotel occupancy tax revenue grew roughly 30 percent in 2012.
"That is just remarkable historical numbers," Wolda said. "The Woodlands continues to be a very desirable address for retailers and shopping and dining."
Wolda said the community's economic success could continue due to significant construction projects in 2013, such as Hughes Landing, projects along The Woodlands Waterway and Nordstrom, which will replace Sears at The Woodlands Mall. He said construction on Nordstrom should begin in the first or second quarter and take about a year and a half to complete.
Construction projects have a significant impact on sales tax revenue because of taxes on construction supplies and services provided within the township, Wolda said. Corporate developments and expansions, such as the nearby ExxonMobil campus and the Anadarko expansion also affect sales and hotel occupancy tax revenue, he said.
"When you have features like The Woodlands Mall, Waterway, Market Street, those are big draws," he said. "And that's further enhanced by corporate developments like ExxonMobil and the Anadarko expansion."