The Woodlands targets tree preservation at build-out

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As growth continues, local entities look to protect land from overdevelopment, flooding

Founded with George Mitchell’s vision of preserving the area’s natural forest, The Woodlands is well-known for its large areas of tree coverage sandwiched between two fast-growing counties.

However, as The Woodlands approaches build-out, officials are planning for what green space will look like in the future. At build-out The Woodlands is expected to be comprised of about 28 percent green space, including forest preserve, parks and canopy coverage, according to Robert Heineman, vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company. According to recent development company projections, residential build-out is expected by 2022, and only a handful of commercial spaces remain.

“That idea hasn’t changed from really day one, so it’s consistent from the original vision,” Heineman said.

Much of the green space in The Woodlands is protected under covenants—or local restrictions—which requires tree coverage around homes and businesses.

To help preserve the forestry The Woodlands Township board of directors approved a project Sept. 26 to plant 3,000 trees throughout The Woodlands to help with reforestation, which re-establishes forest cover.

“The goal of the reforestation program is to re-establish the natural forest that was existing prior to development,” Township Parks and Recreation Director Chris Nunes said.

The $300,000 project will plant native trees, such as loblolly pines and live oaks, throughout The Woodlands.

“What is not included in this number are other reforestation projects that take place as a result of park, playground or facility renovations and the tens of thousands of seedlings that are planted by residents and the township through the annual Arbor Day [event],” Nunes said.

Green space planning

To manage green space reserves, in 2003, The Woodlands Township adopted its Integrated Forestry Management Plan, designed to protect ecosystems in the area by analyzing forest preserves, increasing community awareness and establishing goals for reforestation.

A 2004 forest analysis from Burditt Consultants showed The Woodlands had approximately 20,900 acres of canopy, leafy branches that provide shade and coverage. However, following a major drought across the region in 2010-11—one of the driest years on record, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute—18,500 acres remained.

“You can just see the difference between 2011 and now; we lost so many trees,” said Paul Nelson, president of The Woodlands GREEN, a local nonprofit dedicated to conservation and education around sustainability.

In 2013 the forestry plan was updated, and the forest was found to be in good health despite the drought, Nunes said.

“Several thousand more seedlings [and]trees are planted each year through an annual community reforestation event that typically takes place in February,” Nunes said.

To help recover the lost tress, more than 60,000 trees have been planted in recent years, according to the township.

In a 2016 survey, when asked what they liked most about living in The Woodlands, 88 percent—the top response—of residents surveyed cited the trees, greenery and the overall appearance of the area, and 95 percent  said sustaining trees was important.

In addition to reforestation efforts, The Woodlands also has requirements for residential and commercial properties relating to trees, including the percentage of green space each plot must include. Residential areas are managed by the Development Standards Committee, while commercial standards are overseen by the development company.

“Each parcel has a maximum coverage that’s attached to it,” Heineman said. “So in residential areas, the coverages vary depending on the size of the lot in the program. A minimum of coverage needs to be natural, so in other words it can’t be grass.”

The township also requires that no living trees larger than six inches in diameter be removed without prior approval from township officials.

For commercial lots Heineman said there are a number of restrictions that prohibit developers from removing too much of the natural wildlife during construction. According to the development company’s commercial planning and design standards, developers must submit landscaping and reforestation plans before construction can begin.

“To me it’s the best of both worlds,” Heineman said. “You have an urban downtown area that most people like and want, and then you have a contrast to some extent by saving some of the natural environment.”

Managing stormwater

While officials say trees in the area provide an aesthetic appeal, reforestation can also help provide protection against stormwater, a growing concern for residents located near creeks and tributaries in the area. During Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, areas of The Woodlands located near Spring Creek saw nearly 30 inches of rainfall.

Heineman said unlike many areas that pave over natural streams with concrete to speed up drainage, The Woodlands Development Company left streams untouched, along with the natural green space around them.

Tree planting could also be part of flood prevention strategies underway by the Harris County Flood Control District and other local entities.

Tree roots help to slow stormwater runoff, according to the HCFCD, which operates a tree-planting program to help maintain land infrastructure.

In flood plains, Heineman said soil in The Woodlands can absorb between six and seven inches of rain during storms. While flood plain maps are expected to be updated in the coming years in accordance the latest Atlas 14 study—which measures rainfall frequency levels—released in late September by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, officials said there is still benefit to planting trees around waterways. 

“When The Woodlands Development Company was kind of developing how they wanted the green space to look, it was more of an aesthetic viewpoint, [but]there was the thought that green space and the trees would be able to absorb future rain,” said Heineman, who has worked with the developer since 1971. “We mapped all the soils and found the soils that absorb the most rainfall are actually in the flood plain.”

According to HCFCD, tree canopies also help intercept and store rainwater, which could potentially help reduce surface flooding during a large rain event.

“What it does is reduces our maintenance by providing shade canopies [that]reduce brushy, weedy vines and invasive species that can slow the flow of water,” said John Watson, HCFCD facilities maintenance department manager.

During the 2017-18 planting season—October 2017 to March 2018—HCFCD planted more than 12,900 trees throughout the county around some of the major watersheds affected by Hurricane Harvey, including Buffalo Bayou, the Addicks Reservoir and the Willow Creek watershed, located just southwest of The Woodlands.

While this year’s planting season did not include trees in the Spring Creek watershed, Watson said residents interested in having more trees can request HCFCD consider the area for future planting.

“We’re certainly open to doing projects—we’ll work with communities to try and plant trees in areas that are desired if it works with our mission statement and with the community,” he said. “It’s a project that benefits both, so we try to work with communities when we can.”

Future development

Heineman said while the development of single-family homes is winding down, there is still developable land around Hughes Landing, Sterling Ridge, Creekside Park Village and around the periphery of The Woodlands. 

The Woodlands Development Company previously estimated earlier this year approximately 700 acres were left for development within its boundaries. However, Heineman said the estimate of 28 percent of green space has been factored into that. He also said manmade structures like golf courses are not factored into green space percentages.

“These are all in addition to the 28 percent,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve calculated how much that would be, but it’s pretty significant.”

Nelson said he believes green space in The Woodlands will become more significant as south Montgomery County continues to grow and develop.

“There’s a lot of empty space in this county, but it’s not going to be empty for long. We know that it’s supposed to double in population in the next four or five years to 1 million [people],” Nelson said. “I think it’s an underestimated deal that here you can take green space for granted.”

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Wendy Cawthon
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Cawthon has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and joined The Woodlands edition in 2017.
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