Liberty County Judge Jay Knight on Tuesday, Nov. 2, delivered his State of the County address to the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, during which he detailed the challenges the county faces with expansion and new developments outpacing resources and infrastructure.
“A lot of land is being sold. A lot of folks are coming out here and knocking on doors, looking to buy more land,” Knight said. “The week before last, we had two developers come in [my office] – one on a Tuesday and one on a Wednesday.”
One of the two recent developers in talks is looking to develop 2,700 acres and the other has invested in 2,200 acres. Both locations are along the Grand Parkway, of which a segment travels from Dayton to Plum Grove.
“What we are doing now when a developer comes in, we call the school superintendent [for the impacted area] and have them meet with us. There is nothing scarier for a school district than to have a brand-new developer come in and say, ‘I just bought 5,000 acres and it’s fixing to be all houses. What are you going to do?'” Knight said.
He described a scenario similar to what Cleveland ISD has faced in recent years with the Colony Ridge development near Plum Grove. Knight said the Colony Ridge communities now have roughly 35,000 residents, making it significantly larger than any other city in the county. In comparison, the neighboring city of Cleveland has a population of 7,471 residents. The city of Dayton has 8,777 residents. While there are some benefits to the growth, the Colony Ridge development also has created unending challenges for Cleveland ISD, which has been forced to build new schools nearly every year to keep up student enrollment.
“When we first got into office in 2015, we wanted to challenge that, and we almost ended up in court,” said Knight. He described meeting with Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur and Pct. 4 Commissioner Leon Wilson prior to them being sworn into office to develop a list of goals they hoped to accomplish while in office.
“We said we will stop the developers and they were like, ‘Why don’t you just try that?’ Back in those days, they had 60 days to get a plat through commissioners court. The law was recently changed to 30 days. Think about how fast the developer can get here and start their project. Then they sit down with the school superintendent and say, ‘My job is to develop and your job is to put kids in seats in classrooms and teach them,'” Knight said.
According to Knight, state laws favor the developer, citing Local Government Code 232.
“We can’t tap the brakes, not until the law is changed,” he said. “I challenge you all to go read Local Government 232. It dictates to us how developments are done in the county. One thing we did do when we got here was change the standard for developing in Liberty County. In 2017, we adopted a new book and it has some teeth. It helps us get developers to adhere to our rules. We get a better product that way.”
Among the changes was establishing a minimum lot size and making developers pay for roads that are damaged. These road use agreements apply to areas of the county only, not areas within incorporated cities like Plum Grove.
“Another thing we did was adopt the Atlas 14 book, which establishes your base flood elevation in the county. It was one foot above elevation; now it’s two feet,” he said. This means that new development must be built at two feet above the base elevation of the property, which should reduce some flooding.
“We are going to try to cut down on some of the properties in the area that flood,” Knight said.
Knight also updated the Chamber guests on projects that are currently under construction or are in the planning stages. The new 50,000-square foot law enforcement center that is being built on SH 146 north of Liberty is expected to be complete by August 2022, weather permitting. The law enforcement center will be two buildings – the main one for the sheriff’s office and the Liberty County Office of Emergency Management and the second one used for offices for the Pct. 3 Constable, Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Rangers and Texas Department of Public Safety.
The old sheriff’s office will be used as offices for the county jail for now.
The County is eyeing construction of a new northwest annex that will be located in the Colony Ridge/Plum Grove area that will have offices for the sheriff’s office and the County’s engineering and permitting department.
“After all of that is complete, but in the meantime, we will be deciding on a new jail. Our current jail is 288 beds and right now it’s full to the rafters. We are having to contract with five different counties to hold our inmates. That takes a lot of time and money, so we will be starting the planning portion of building a new jail right behind the new sheriff’s office,” Knight said. “That’s why we bought 40 acres.”
Having the airport just a few miles away from the new jail and sheriff’s office will be a boon as it will make it easier for the U.S. Marshal’s Office to fly in jail inmates that it needs to house.
“If we build the jail large enough, maybe a 750-bed jail, we are not going to use all of that space but we can darn sure lease it out to the U.S. Marshal’s Office,” the judge said.
The judge closed his speech with a demonstration on how little of the overall amount collected in ad valorem taxes actually gets used by the county. Holding up a piece of paper to represent a $1,000 tax payment, he cut it in half as roughly half of taxes go toward education costs, such as the operation of school districts. Of the remaining $500, half goes to a city if the taxpayer lives in an incorporated area. That leaves just $250 of the $1,000 for the county.
“You start cutting that leftover $250 into pieces,” Knight said, adding that the lion’s share – 32 percent – of the county’s $52 million budget goes to public safety for the sheriff’s office, constable’s offices and justice system. Another chunk goes to debt service, leaving only a small amount to be divided for the four road and bridge precincts for road maintenance.
“When it gets down to it, and I did the math one day, that pothole in front of your house on CR 604, right outside your driveway, $4.18 is what you pay – total,” he said. “So when you get on your commissioners about your roads and taxes, maybe you should have some consideration that there isn’t a lot of money for them.”
Commissioners also face the criticism from people who do not realize which entity is responsible for upkeeping their roads and streets. Cities are responsible for streets within a city with the exception of major thoroughfares like state highways. The county is responsible for county roads outside the incorporated cities, also not including state highways.