Bills filed in the Texas Legislature in late February could ease The Woodlands’ incorporation process should voters elect for the community to become a city in the future.

Aside from securing a legal path to incorporation, The Woodlands Township board of directors needs more analysis to determine what services—and the cost of those services—would be required at the time of incorporation.

Although there is no set timeline for incorporation, the board is moving forward with planning initiatives; a special meeting took place Feb. 22 to discuss the topic and the legislation.Legislation filed to ease The Woodlands’ future path to incorporation

“This is a foundational day,” township board Chairman Gordy Bunch said. “We’re starting the groundwork.”

Incorporation legislation

The Woodlands has until 2057 to incorporate before it risks being annexed by the cities of Houston and Conroe, according to regional participation agreements signed in 2007 by both cities. Voters in the master-planned community will have the ultimate say over whether to become a city if the board of directors chooses to place incorporation on a ballot.

There are two types of cities in the state of Texas: general law and home rule. The Texas Constitution only allows communities to incorporate as general law cities, which have populations of 5,000 or less. Therefore, the township legally cannot incorporate today because of its population of more than 110,000 residents, according to the Texas Municipal League. A general law city only has authority granted in the state statutes, while a home rule city’s authority—to which The Woodlands would eventually transition—is granted in a city charter, according to the TML.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, filed Senate bills 1014 and 1015 and House bills 2110 and 2183, respectively, Feb. 22 to legalize the community’s possible future transition to a general law city.

“Legislation has been introduced to resolve these issues and provide the township with the ability to move from the current form of governance and incorporate as a general law city,” township General Manager and President Don Norrell said.

Aside from allowing The Woodlands to incorporate as a general law city, the legislation requires a proposed initial maximum property tax rate for the community at incorporation be included in any ballot language. The proposed legislation also states if a majority of The Woodlands voters do choose to incorporate, a subsequent election would need to be held to elect a mayor and five council members, or a mayor and two city commissioners. The township’s board of directors has seven members today.

Additionally, the assets, liabilities and obligations of the township would be transferred to the new city, according to the legislation.

The township may not know the outcome of the legislation until the end of the session in late May or early June. If approved by the Legislature, the bills would either take effect this September or immediately if approved by two-thirds of both chambers.

“We need to reset the button in The Woodlands with our residents that there isn’t this imminent threat that [incorporation] is going to happen overnight,” Bunch said. “This is a multiyear planning process.”

Public feedback

Much of the discussion surrounding the topic of incorporation has centered on what services the new city would be required to provide by law.

As a special purpose district, The Woodlands relies on multiple governmental agencies, such as Montgomery County and The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency, to provide various services ranging from law enforcement to water and sanitary sewer services.Legislation filed to ease The Woodlands’ future path to incorporation

“We are still dealing with multiple governmental agencies constantly,” township Director Laura Fillault said.

Although the board plans to further dive into what services a city would need to provide during the planning process, the actual implementation of those decisions would be the job of new city council members to make after incorporation, said Julie Port, an attorney hired by the board with experience in incorporation matters.

“That will be the body that will decide, ‘Are we going to start with our own police department, are we going to do an interlocal agreement with the neighboring community, or are we going to contract with the county for those services?’” she said.

The board of directors also discussed the types of analysis and studies needed to move forward in the planning process, which it plans to revisit in April.

“We’re going to find, as we go through this process, that changing conditions will cause us to change our views on some of these issues,” township Director Bruce Rieser said.

Incorporation triggers

Recent developments in the community have triggered a greater need for discussion and planning for incorporation, which was deferred indefinitely in 2012. At that time, however, the township created a multilevel review approach for significant factors that may indicate a need to evaluate a change in governance structure. There are four levels to the approach: The first involves seeing if the issue can be addressed with internal procedures, while the fourth and final level involves pursuing a change in governance structure.

“[The board] put this mechanism in … so when community issues come up, we review to see if there are steps that need to be taken to go through this process, or if there’s anything that would trigger greater discussion of incorporation,” Dempsey said.Legislation filed to ease The Woodlands’ future path to incorporation

Although the four levels may be subjective based on where a resident lives in The Woodlands, the township board in 2016 discussed several issues it considers to be higher than a 1 on the scale. For example, the topic of mobility was raised to a Level 4 last year in response to the controversial proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Hwy. 249 that the township board and residents have opposed.   

“We are here because we triggered our own board policy saying we have a significant issue within the township that our residents have proclaimed loudly through the [May 2015 bond], their petitions and our board resolutions that triggered us to start a planning process,” Bunch said. “Up to this point, there was no plan. We had been deferring indefinitely until we triggered our board policy.”