Tensions flared at a Liberty County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, July 28, regarding the merits of a proposed emergency services district for the Plum Grove area. More than a hundred Plum Grove area residents have signed a petition asking commissioners for the right to vote on the ESD in the upcoming general election in November. If approved, the ESD would capture a small amount of property taxes inside the district that would be reinvested into emergency services.
Lee Ann Penton Walker, the mayor of Plum Grove, along with Plum Grove Fire Chief Chris Loftin and Asst. Fire Chief Brandon Frazier, pleaded in favor of the district. If approved as presented, the district would share the same boundary lines as Plum Grove Volunteer Fire Department, a territory established by the Texas Forest Service in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
This proposed ESD would include properties that fall inside of the Colony Ridge development, a point that drew some frustration from Colony Ridge developer Trey Harris because of an existing Municipal Management District (MMD) that was established by the Texas Legislature for his development a few years ago.
Harris contends that residents inside the MMD are already paying $0.35 per $100 valuation in property taxes as well as sales taxes that are collected by businesses within the MMD. He told commissioners he intends to use money captured by the MMD to build a number of fire and ambulance stations throughout the multi-subdivision development, though it will still be a couple more years before enough money is collected to go out for bonds to pay for these stations.
“We already have $100 million bonding capacity. We are just waiting on three years of payments to the MMD. We have one year collected so far,” he said.
The rapid growth of the subdivisions has put a strain on Plum Grove’s volunteer firefighters, who have seen their call volume go up from 40 calls in 2010 to 544 in 2019.
“That’s a 1,200 percent increase in calls on our volunteer fire department,” Mayor Walker said. “Mr. Harris is talking about his long-term plan. We are hearing about the long-term plan today. It’s 2020. Where was his long-term plan in 2010?”
With Colony Ridge planning to gather at least two more years of MMD payments before starting construction on its fire and ambulance stations, it will be left to Plum Grove VFD to continue picking up the calls in the meantime, even as the growth of the communities threatens to outpace the capability of the all-volunteer department.
“Colony Ridge made absolutely no monetary contribution to Plum Grove VFD until 2017 when I was asked as mayor for the city to pay $400 a month to the fire department. I said, ‘Hey, if Plum Grove is going to pay $400 a month, why can’t El Norte?'” said the mayor, referring to the development’s property owners association.
Harris pointed out that Colony Ridge installed a parking lot valued at $30,000 for the fire department. The mayor said Colony Ridge also donated some appliances.
“Over an eight-year period of increase in calls, that’s what they have given the fire department. As a developer, I usually have a long-term plan on the day I submit my first plat,” said Walker. “When they submitted Bella Vista, Montibello and Camino Real [subdivisions], and they included thousands of lots being sold, they didn’t take in the impact they were going to have on Cleveland ISD or the impact they were going to have on Plum Grove fire department.”
As a result of the development, Cleveland ISD became the fastest-growing school district in Texas, prompting multiple bonds to pay for additional campuses, including the new Cottonwood Elementary that will open up this school year on land that was donated to the district by Colony Ridge. Another elementary campus is already in the works.
Walker contends that the MMD was forced on the residents of the Colony Ridge communities.
“Not one Colony Ridge landowner got to vote if they wanted to be in the MMD. You forced it on them, not by a vote but by legislation. He knew he couldn’t get the vote,” she said. “I represent 126 signatures. I have spoken to 140 or something people in the last four days. Out of them, only 12 are against the ESD. The rest want to support their local fire department.”
She told commissioners that Harris appears to want to control the ESD, too, by asking commissioners to change the boundaries of the ESD to not include any part of the development.
“We are not asking you guys to approve the ESD. We are just asking you to let the people of Plum Grove vote. I want to know if this court is going to tell the people of Plum Grove, ‘We didn’t take your opinion when we were allowing this irresponsible development, but now that you are trying to deal with the overload that was put on the fire department, we are going to shoot you down because Colony Ridge wants it,'” she said. “We have a plan. We are ready to vote. If the people of Plum Grove vote it down in November, vote it down. It didn’t make it. If they vote it in, they vote it in. Why in the world would Colony Ridge want to stop Plum Grove from having a vote?”
Harris said his concern was more about double taxation on the properties that fall inside both the MMD and the proposed ESD. Parts of some of the properties first established by the developer – particularly Montibello and Grand San Jacinto – fall outside the MMD and would be included in the ESD.
“With everything that is going on, I don’t think now is a good time to try and put an extra tax on the people who are already burdened with a heavy tax. In addition to the taxes my customers already pay, we are working with Lone Star [College] to be part of their district,” he said. “We don’t want to be part of the district unless they build us a campus and they have said they will build a campus but it’s more of a timeline of how quickly they can get a campus on the ground. This coronavirus has really slowed things down. It’s hurt our progress.”
Harris said that in order for commissioners to consider putting the ESD proposal on the November ballot, they have to be sure it is something that promotes the health and welfare of the people in the district.
“The majority of the people are already paying for the services,” Harris began, but was interjected by Fire Chief Loftin, who added, “that they are not receiving.”
Harris continued, “To promote the health and welfare of the people in the community. It does not do that … the lion’s share of the people in the district will not benefit from this ESD. Way before the ESD could ever raise money, if it got on the ballot and if it got approved by the voters, they are a long way from having money to do anything.”
He said his MMD will be well-funded and able to provide those services more quickly, so there was no reason to include any of the Colony Ridge communities in the ESD.
Mayor Walker said that “what if” and “could” are useless words in Colony Ridge’s argument.
“Basically, you are saying that they knocked something down and we should go pick it up. They shouldn’t have knocked it down in the first place. They have impacted this fire department with wrecks, call volume, fires, shootings. I mean, Judge, if they want to make it a better place, tell them they can’t burn wood,” said Walker, adding that firefighters have had to respond to numerous calls where owners clearing their properties have started fires and left, only for those fires to spark wildfires that burned dozens of acres.
“Who do they get now when they call? They don’t get Colony Ridge’s fire department. No, they get Plum Grove,” she said.
Commissioners ended the discussion by setting a date to properly consider whether or not to grant the petition and to set an election. The hearing requires certain prescribed deadlines for running notices in newspapers. The date set is Aug. 25 during the regular meeting of commissioners court.
“After all the notices are published, etc., then commissioners court can order an election,” said County Attorney Matthew Poston.
To see the video from the meeting, go online to