A request to take away Liberty County’s autonomy in governing local affairs appears to be going nowhere. The 30-day third special session of the 88th Texas State Legislature began last Monday, Oct. 9, and so far no resolution regarding the conservatorship request for Liberty County and Colony Ridge has been filed.
“It’s a non-issue and not even a conversation,” said State Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-District), who represents Liberty County.
The four lawmakers pushing for conservatorship of Liberty County and the Colony Ridge development – Rep. Steve Toth (R-House District 15), Rep. Brian Harrison (R-House District 10), Rep. Nate Schatzline (R-District 93) and Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-District 94) – cited concerns over illegal immigration and lawlessness in the Colony Ridge communities south of Plum Grove in a letter they submitted to Governor Greg Abbott.
In a surprising twist, Toth filed a bill asking that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) maintain a substation in Liberty County. However, Liberty County officials argue that there has been a Texas DPS substation in the county for decades and, therefore, the bill is unwarranted. The DPS office is headquartered in the Pct. 3 annex at the new law enforcement center on SH 146 north of Liberty. Prior to that, it was located on Layl Drive in Liberty.
“If they want to put more state troopers here, we welcome it,” said Liberty County Attorney Matthew Poston, “but we hope this is in addition to, and not a replacement of, the troopers we already have assigned and headquartered here.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, county commissioners are expected to open and review bids for construction of a new northwest county annex in Colony Ridge where offices will be located for the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and the Pct. 6 Constable’s Office.
While Poston and other county officials believe the conservatorship request was a baseless political maneuver, they must take it seriously as two weeks remain in the special session. Last Tuesday, commissioners court authorized Poston to look into hiring an outside legal firm to defend the County from its own state. The motion by commissioners was unfunded, but Poston estimates that the potential cost to defend Liberty County in a conservatorship request could cost between $100,000 to $200,000.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, never imagined anything like this. It should be an unthinkable request and it’s an embarrassment to the people who are doing it. Neither Steve Toth nor any of the others who signed on that letter ever called me, ever called our county judge, ever called anybody here to see what the full story is. They’re making arguments in bad faith,” said Poston.
In 2016, when it became apparent that Liberty County was facing a population explosion due to the Colony Ridge development, which now has an estimated population of 40,000, roughly 4-5 times the size of Cleveland, Dayton or Liberty, County Judge Jay Knight, Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur and other County officials spoke before the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations and begged lawmakers to give counties the ability to shape growth rather than have the growth shape the county. Instead of changing laws to help counties, laws were changed in favor of developers, Poston said.
“For years, in order to avoid the problems that we’re seeing up in Plum Grove right now, we have asked for changes to the law and consistently every time they have told us no. In my opinion, it’s all about the developers’ lobby at that point and you have to understand that I’m very confident that the lobby for folks who are somehow engaged in the in the sale of real estate is huge. You’re not just talking about developers; you’re talking about everybody from title companies, surveyors, to insurance companies, a very large interested group whose bottom line is directly dependent on how quick counties approve plats,” Poston said.
According to Poston, when development of Colony Ridge first began, the rule was that Texas counties had 45 days to review plats to ensure they complied with the law. At the end of the 45 days, there were two options – approve or deny. If they denied the plat without cause, they faced potential legal action from a developer.
“After Judge Knight, the former county attorney and current judge Wes Hinch and Commissioner Greg Arthur went to Austin, the next changes to the development codes were to reduce the amount of time counties had to review – from 45 days down to 30, where it is currently. You can read the AG’s opinions in this area, you can read the legislative history behind these bills and it is not hard to see vested interest in this. We believe very much in the power and right to contract and are not looking to interfere with that, but we are looking for rules that manage growth,” Poston said.
Liberty County has been forced to follow the law to its own detriment, Poston said.
“The only thing that we had to do after that was follow the law. We’ve done that even though it’s resulted in some very catastrophic effects on the school districts, even though we know it’s going to affect our ability to provide the services that we are here to provide. We followed the law and now they are angry with us for following the law. Why is it that all the solutions have to involve us going against the law?” he said.
Two other illegal immigration-related bills that appear to be gaining some traction in the third special session are Senate Bill 11, sponsored by Senator Brian Birdwell (R-District 22, Granbury), which would make it a new crime for illegally entering Texas from Mexico and would authorize state police to arrest those who violate the law, and Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Senator Pete Flores (R-District 24, Pleasanton), which would stiffen the penalty of first-time criminal offenders convicted of a misdemeanor. The punishment would jump to a felony if the offender was an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.