Tarkington resident Dwayne Stovall came to the Liberty County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday with a plan to deal with the harmful aspects of rapid growth caused by developments like Colony Ridge in the Plum Grove area. Over the last decade, Colony Ridge has transformed what was once a forest into tracts for tens of thousands of homes. The growth has pushed enrollment in Cleveland ISD to roughly 9,000 students, a big jump from student enrollment of 4,000 students in 2014.
The impact on Cleveland ISD has forced back-to-back bond elections – the most recent in 2019 when voters approved a $198 million bond to fund construction of two new elementary schools and a junior high school in the Colony Ridge communities.
“We all know the story: a developer purchases a tract of land, submits a plat to the County, and after approval, sells lots for family dwellings. These developments are typically welcomed by counties because they help broaden the tax base and increase revenue, but that is where the positive impact usually stops,” Stovall said. “Once these developments start to be populated, the local school district will always be left figuring out how to pay for the facilities they now need to accommodate the increase in students.”
Stovall, who serves on the Tarkington ISD board of trustees, is concerned about the impact on Cleveland and what will become of Tarkington as the development is sprawling to the east.
“Liberty County could set an example by creating an impact fee to be paid by the developer upon the sale of each lot, directly into a construction fund for the local school district. This could allow the costs of facilities construction to be gathered in real time in such a way that the local ISD could plan and fund construction projects without having to go into debt or increase taxes on landowners,” he told commissioners.
Using a $10,000 per lot fee as an example, Stovall explained how this could generate an additional $5 million for a school district based on a 500-lot project. Colony Ridge’s lots number in the tens of thousands.
“While the fee would necessarily create a higher price for lots, it would also go a long way in helping keep property taxes low by keeping the local school district from having to create bonds as a response to the influx of new students, which can be used as a great selling point by the developer,” he said.
Stovall’s proposal was intriguing for commissioners; however, the legalities of his proposal are uncertain.
“I will be looking at the steps that need to be taken to have a bill before the State Legislature,” said County Attorney Matthew Poston. “We have been looking into several possible bills that could reduce the amount of development if it poses costs that are too great for our school districts to bear.”
Colony Ridge developer Trey Harris said that the costs for infrastructure to build new schools should be taken into account.
“The school districts are always behind the eight ball with developments like ours. They will tell you that. When a housing development comes in and builds 500 homes, the average number of children in those homes is 1-2. With that being the case, over time the residential aspect doesn’t cover the cost of the additional kids in the school district,” he said. “When you build a population of a significant size, then there will be commercial, retail and industry that comes in afterward. Those businesses don’t put any kids in the schools but they create a significant amount of tax money for the school district.”
Harris said that he has committed to building a four-lane road to a new campus for Cleveland ISD. The land will be built on a large tract that Cleveland ISD purchased from another property owner. As it was landlocked, the District needed Harris’s help with infrastructure.
“I am bringing three-phase power to that location because it will be a multi-campus site. To handle the traffic associated with the schools, I am building a four-lane road. I am not getting any frontage out of the deal. It’s exclusively for Cleveland ISD. The costs of bringing water and sewer to that location is on me as well. I am not getting anything back for that,” he said. “The fire requirements for a school are enormous. We have to buy additional storage tanks and drill additional water wells so we can handle the fire capacity that a school requires. When you do the math on all of that, it ends up costing me more money than the land.”
While his plan faces an uphill battle to get approval from lawmakers, Stovall believes that it is a way for school districts and property owners to be protected. He said that much of the uproar surrounding big property developments like Colony Ridge could be avoided by creating a plan that puts the financial burden for developments back on the creator of the burden – the developer.
“It doesn’t have to be a big fat check written up front. It could be a per lot fee. As they sell a property, they could give a portion of the sale to the school districts. We should want to create a scenario where the impact of these developments is paid for and the people who are impacted are only minimally impacted,” he said. “For the future, I think it’s important that we address this from a corrective standpoint. Down the road, it will end with really bad results if we don’t do something now.”