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December 8th, 2006:

A deal for the Woodlands

So the Woodlands may not become part of Houston after all.

Voters in The Woodlands could decide as early as next year whether to take the first steps toward self-government under a deal that also would remove the possibility of annexation by Houston, local officials announced Thursday.

The agreement marks a dramatic shift in how potential boundary takeovers have been handled. Mindful of acrimonious debates that erupted when Houston annexed Clear Lake and Kingwood, local officials said they worked hard to avoid a similar situation with The Woodlands.

What it means for people in The Woodlands is a chance to make decisions about their community without the threat of becoming a part of Houston.

It also provides the master-planned community of about 84,000 a chance to be a regional player for the first time. Under the agreement, The Woodlands would enter into an economic partnership with the city to fund mutually beneficial regional projects totaling $45 million over time.


Thursday’s proposal would require legislation, which [State Sen. Tommy] Williams and state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, pledged to get passed in the upcoming session.

Lawmakers need to pass at least two bills – one to expand an existing improvement district to collect sales taxes in all of The Woodlands and one to make it possible for Houston and The Woodlands – and other cities and communities in the future – to enter into a regional agreement.

With the new laws in place, The Woodlands residents then could vote in November on whether to expand the existing improvement district – which already collects a sales tax in the retail district of The Woodlands – as a first step toward possible incorporation.

I’m guessing that a part of the negotiation process here was to sound out various other legislators, especially those from Houston, to make sure those two bills can be passed. I presume therefore that there’s no strong objections to it among the Houston delegation. Anything is possible, of course, but that would be my guess.

The agreement, which also would need approval from the Houston City Council and the various governing boards in The Woodlands, would not affect Conroe’s plans to annex Harper’s Landing, the only Woodlands neighborhood east of Interstate 45 and not within Houston’s expansion boundaries.

Something for everyone in this deal!

Under the terms of the proposed deal, Houston would agree to release The Woodlands from its extraterritorial jurisdiction – a distinction in state law that would allow annexation. That would allow residents to decide after 2014 whether to incorporate or choose another form of local self-governance.

In return, The Woodlands would give up an initial $16 million to pay for certain regional projects. The money would come from existing local funding sources to be determined. It would not come from increases in municipal utility district fees or property tax increases.

The projects would include $3 million for improvements to Lake Houston Park, much of which is in Montgomery County; $3 million for other major parks, including Memorial and Hermann; $5 million for road improvements at the Texas Medical Center, and a $5 million contribution to a planned project that would extend the Hardy Toll Road closer to downtown.

The Woodlands also would make another $29 million in payments from sales taxes during the next 30 years.

I presume that the money for these projects, some of which have no clear connection to the Woodlands, is to make up for the property and sales tax revenue that Houston would have received post-annexation. One wonders what “existing local funding sources” they have in mind here. Sixteen million bucks is a lot of money for a burg the size of the Woodlands. If they’re not creating a new revenue stream to cover it, they either have it lying around already (must be nice), they expect to divert it from other projects, or they might come up with a way to borrow it. We’ll see.

Jeff Long, president of The Woodlands Community Association board of directors, also was surprised by the announcement.

”The beneficial portion so far is being out from under the threat of annexation. That was paramount,” Long said. “But the devil is in the details. We knew all along that there would be a price, so whether I can live with it or not, I have to study it first.”

Indeed. Stace thinks Houston should have pursued annexation anyway, while this KHOU story suggests taxes will indeed rise for Woodlanders. I wish Tom had blogged about this, I’d love to know what his take is.

HD29 weekend activities

CD23 isn’t the only election going on this month – the special election to fill the vacant HD29 is Tuesday, December 19, with early voting going on Monday through Friday of next week. There’s phonebanking and blockwalking going on this weekend and next week in support of Democratic contender Anthony DiNovo. If you’re in the area and want to help, Muse has the details. The Bay Area New Democrats are also involved – contact them if you want to help.

Saint Arnold Goes To Austin

I mentioned this previously on Kuff’s World, but now I can present to you the official unveiling of the effort by Saint Arnold and other Texas microbrewers to change the law in Texas to give them the same rights as wineries. Here’s the press release.

A coalition of Texas craft breweries and beer lovers, Friends of Texas Microbreweries, today launched a campaign to allow small Texas breweries to sell directly to patrons. Currently, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Code requires microbreweries to sell only to distributors and retailers, which puts Texas craft breweries at a disadvantage to those in other states where sales direct to customers are allowed.

“We can no longer ignore the fact that 14 out of 19 microbreweries have failed in Texas in part because current regulations disadvantage microbrewing small businesses,” said Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner. “This common-sense proposal will allow Texas microbrewers to compete with out-of-state microbrewers on a level playing field.”

In 2003, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 11, which changed the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Code to allow Texas wineries to sell limited quantities of their beverages directly to patrons. Friends of Texas Microbreweries is proposing a similar change for microbreweries, which would allow on-premise sales of no more than 5,000 barrels of ale and malt liquor annually.

“It has been three years since Texas voters clearly signaled they support common sense beverage laws,” said Fritz Rahr, founder of Rahr & Sons Brewing Company in Fort Worth. “It’s time Texas craft brewers offered the same customer-friendly advantages that Texas wineries already have.”

For those who (like me) can’t recall Prop 11 offhand, here’s a little background. First, from the Austin Chronicle endorsement of the measure.

Proposition 11: Allow wineries in dry counties to market their wares. About half the wineries in Texas (a couple of dozen) operate in “dry” counties that don’t allow direct sale (or even free samples) of liquor, hampering economic development. We’re being asked to fix that from above, in the constitution. Were they breweries or distilleries, which can locate anywhere, we wouldn’t care, but since wineries are more geographically limited, we’re willing to give ’em a pass. YES

Their only quibble was with it being a Constitutional amendment. As far as I know, the microbrewers are seeking a legislative solution, so there’s no issue there.

And from the Texas Farm Bureau.

PROPOSITION 11: Allowing wineries to sell wine for consumption on or off premises.

Explanation: Under present provisions of the Constitution, the Texas wine industry is controlled by a combination of state and local laws. The legislature is authorized to regulate the manufacture, sale, possession, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. It is also required to provide local options to qualified voters in various governmental entities concerning the sale of alcohol.

This proposed amendment would enable the legislature to enact laws and direct the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or its successor, to set policies for all wineries in the state, regardless of whether the winery is located in an area in which the sale of wine has or has not been authorized by local option.

The proposed amendment would authorize properly permitted wineries to manufacture and sell wine for consumption on or off the winery premises.

Wineries could also offer free wine for tasting on the premises. The enabling legislation requires that the wine must be manufactured in Texas and contain at least 75 percent by volume of fermented juice of grapes or other fruit grown in Texas.

The crux of the issue is being able to sell directly to customers. Here are the relevant laws from the Alcoholic Beverages Code. For wineries:

Sec. 16.01. AUTHORIZED ACTIVITIES. (a) Except as provided by Section 16.011, the holder of a winery permit may:

(1) manufacture, bottle, label, and package wine containing not more than 24 percent alcohol by volume;

(2) manufacture and import grape brandy for fortifying purposes only and to be used only on his licensed premises;

(3) sell wine in this state to or buy wine from permit holders authorized to purchase and sell wine, including holders of wholesaler’s permits, winery permits, and wine bottler’s permits;

(4) sell wine to ultimate consumers:
(A) for consumption on the winery premises; or
(B) in unbroken packages for off-premises consumption in an amount not to exceed 35,000 gallons annually;

(5) sell the wine outside this state to qualified persons;

(6) blend wines; and

(7) dispense free wine for consumption on the winery premises.

And for breweries:

Sec. 12.01. AUTHORIZED ACTIVITIES. The holder of a brewer’s per­mit may:

(1) manufacture, bottle, package, and label malt liquor;

(2) import ale and malt liquor acquired from a holder of a nonresident brewer’s permit;

(3) sell the ale and malt liquor only to wholesale permit holders in this state or to qualified persons outside the state; and

(4) dispense ale and malt liquor for consumption on the premises.

Naturally, this effort comes with its own blog. You’ll be seeing some activity from various Texas bloggers on this as well, since beer is an issue that’s close to all of our hearts. Evan of the PerryVsWorld blog is the force behind that site and the one who drew me into this. Like him, I’m excited about the possibility of making something good happen. Stay tuned for more on this as we navigate our way through the legislative session.

UPDATE: More details from the Saint Arnold Goes To Austin blog.

Lights in the Heights 2006

Once again Lights in the Heights is upon us. Houstonist has a summary, while the Chron has all you need to know.

“This year we are doing it a little differently, running from 6-10 p.m.,” said Sharon Greiff, who co-chairs the event with Woodland Heights Civic Association president Terri Guerra.

“It normally ran from 6-9 p.m., but the problem was that since we added the parade a few years ago, people were doing that and then walking and just revving up by 9, so we decided to do it this way and see how it goes,” she added.

The association faces a big job each year, putting together the massive holiday street party that draws in excess of 10,000 people to the neighborhood just east of the Houston Heights.

The event, as always, is free, and this year runs from the 400 block of Euclid and Byrne streets all the way to the Norhill esplanade seven blocks to the west.


The event will start from the intersection of Florence Street along the route with a parade, which Greiff said is a little more “robust” this year.

It will feature at least six art cars, a fire truck, marching bands and mounted police.

“The last is great because everyone loves horses,” she said.

In addition to the longer hours, another small change is that lights will be strung along the Norhill esplanade, which was wired for electricity just over a month ago.

“We always got by on generators before, but between Lights in the Heights and the Home Tour folks, this is going to be a lot easier,” Greiff said.

The esplanade will be home to Santa Claus, who, after the parade, will be available for photos.

Also, the WHCA will be selling T-shirts and other novelties to support the costs of this year’s event as well as in 2007.

T-shirts are also on sale before the event at Buchanan’s Native Plants, 611 E 11th St., C&D Hardware, 314 E 11th St. and Oo La La, 833 Studewood.

“We figured why should all of those street corner vendors have all the fun and get the proceeds,” Greiff said. “So we’re going to try that this year to raise money for the event.

“We’ve got some Santa hats that glow and blink and reindeer antlers that glow in the dark, lighted necklaces and that’s it. We didn’t want to go too far.”


Greiff turned a bit serious when she talked about the parking situation.
“We do tell everyone that the route is closed, and it starts getting closed around 5:30 p.m.,” she said. “So if you want to get parking even remotely close, come much earlier. Parking is always going to be tough because we keep this free. That’s just how it is.”

Some local businesses welcome the extra traffic, but others are not so excited about people parking in their lots and have said they will tow. So Greiff said to exercise some common sense.

“There’s street parking all around, and getting there early helps, but once you get around 6:30-7 p.m., don’t even think about getting near the route,” she said. “The only people allowed in or out in cars are the homeowners, not their guests.

“You’ll need proof of residency like an ID or driver’s license to get in. So if you get there late, you’re going to walk, which isn’t so bad because you’ll be walking all over the route anyway.

“Carpooling helps because the more people you can pile into your car, the better off you’ll be.”

My advice has always been to park west of Studewood and walk from there. Arriving early is also smart.

Anyway, Marty Hajovsky brings the memories of Lights past. Here’s what I wrote about it last year – thankfully, Studewood is no longer under construction, so you needn’t worry about that.

If you’ve never been, Lights is one of the best and most fun things you can do for free in Houston. It’s very kid friendly, too – I think Olivia will really love it this year. Come on over to the Woodland Heights this Saturday and see for yourself what Lights in the Heights is all about.

Fix that sidewalk!

Miya Shay highlights an issue on which I’d like to see some action.

Yesterday, between all the babble about employee unions, several council members actually talked about something that you and I use daily: sidewalks! Mainly, Council Member Sue Lovell’s not too happy that a builder bulldozing a house took a large chunk of city sidewalk along. Therefore, kids walking home in this Montrose neighborhood (near Woodhead and W. Alabama) will either walk through gunk or walk on a busy street. Yuck! But alas, Houston’s sidewalk ordinance only requires builders to put back a sidewalk when they build. So, if a builder puts up homes right away, great! If they leave it empty for months.. there is nothing the city can do. So now, they are considering whether to toughen up the sidewalk ordinance. Sue Lovell would like to see builders put something down, even just some gravel or boards, within a few weeks of tearing up a sidewalk.

I wholeheartedly endorse this effort, and would plead with Council Member Lovell to go farther with it. In 2005, a little multiplex that sat on a double lot a block from my house was torn down, with two houses eventually being built in its place. When the old structure was demolished, a large chunk of the sidewalk was taken out as well, as in the case cited above. It was many months before it was replaced – basically, there was a hole in the walk until after the second house had been completed. As this is one of the usual paths I take to walk my dog, it was a major pain in the tuchus, especially during and after rainstorms. I cursed the developer’s name many, many times for the duration.

In the end, the replacement sidewalk was better than what was there before, and the folks who bought those houses are super cool, so everything turned out well. But it was still a huge inconvenience for a long time. I say there should be a real sidewalk in place within two weeks of the tear out, with fines that accumulate for every day past the deadline that it’s missing. If there’s some valid construction reason why a ripped-out sidewalk can’t be fully replaced before the house is built, I’d be willing to accept a stopgap solution as Lovell is proposing. But what we have now stinks, and I sincerely hope Lovell is successful in getting something done about this.