On a Sunday evening before Labor Day, Liberty County Sheriff’s Cpl. Robert Whitesel maneuvered his patrol car through the sprawling development known as Colony Ridge, humming along to a Guns N’ Roses power ballad.
Most shifts, Whitesel will respond to the occasional burglary, theft or report of drug activity in the development that is home to tens of thousands of Latinos — many of them in the country unlawfully — about 40 miles northeast of Houston.
On this night, Whitesel handled two calls, one for someone shooting a gun in their backyard and the other to support another deputy with an unruly person. He also issued two traffic tickets and delivered a warning for a broken tail light.
“For the most part, everyone here is good people,” Whitesel said.
The comment stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of Colony Ridge that far-right websites and many of Texas’ top Republican elected officials have put forth in recent weeks, describing the area as riddled with crime, a magnet for illegal immigration and a potential hotbed for Mexican drug cartels.
Local law enforcement officials, however, offer a more nuanced view of crime and public safety in the massive, decade-old development.
In interviews, Liberty County’s Republican sheriff, Bobby Rader, and his team said the agency needs more deputies, but the county’s relatively small tax base constrains its budget. They also said violent crime occurs in Colony Ridge and cartels operate there, but those are no more prevalent than other parts of Houston and Texas.
“There are good people that live in Colony Ridge. We have deputies who reside there,” Liberty County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Knox said. “There is crime there, but you have it everywhere else. At the end of the day, our main concern is having enough people in there to be proactive and provide services to the citizens of the county.”
The local accounts are backed up, in part, by crime data reported to the state by all Texas law enforcement agencies.
The figures show the violent crime rate in areas patrolled by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office was lower last year than in jurisdictions overseen by the Houston Police Department and sheriffs of Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties. The sheriffs of Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Waller counties reported lower violent crime rates than Liberty County’s sheriff.
The data also show the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and assault — reported by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office each year has remained consistent over the past decade, even as the population has boomed during that time. The agency typically investigates no more than four murders per year, though it reported 11 murders in 2020, and 10 in 2022.
See here and here for some background. One of the developers said that he believes Greg Abbott, to whom he has donated over a million dollars in total, is a “good guy” who will “know he made a mistake when the facts come out about what’s really going on here”. How’s that going so far?
On Thursday afternoon, at the invitation of the developers, brothers William “Trey” Harris and John Harris, a party of 18 politicians, staffers and representatives from the Texas attorney general’s office toured the area. Four members of the Texas House of Representatives — Baytown Republican Briscoe Cain, Houston Democrat Christina Morales, Spring Republican Valoree Swanson and Smithville Republican Stan Gerdes — participated in the tour and information session.
The kinds of houses in Colony Ridge’s six subdivisions vary from street to street, from ramshackle buildings to mobile homes to finely built, ranch-style houses with freshly mowed lawns and newly paved driveways.
Other areas in the development are minimally executed, or works-in-progress. Plywood frames and piles of building material offer hints of what future streets could be. Throughout Colony Ridge, there are few sidewalks and no road shoulders.
The lawmakers in attendance said any legislative action needs to be backed by facts on the ground, and they didn’t see anything to support the recent alarmist media reports.
“From what we’ve seen, it looks a lot like places you might see in East Texas. It looks a lot like my family’s place in Louisiana,” Cain said after the tour.
“I didn’t see anything that I found alarming,” Morales said. “It seems like a normal neighborhood.”
All 25 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Texas delegation disagree, though.
On Saturday, they sent a letter to Abbott and Patrick saying the community holds a “staggering illegal immigrant population,” failing public safety infrastructure and “continuous drug cartel activity.” None of those members or their staffers attended Thursday’s tour.
And on Wednesday, Republican state Reps. Steve Toth, Nate Schatzline, Brian Harrison and Tony Tinderholt published a letter arguing for legislation to “clean up and clean out” the development by putting Liberty County under a conservatorship — essentially a state takeover of the county government.
Developer Trey Harris said he hopes Thursday’s tour has eased apprehensions, but is willing to travel to Austin to speak further with legislators.
“The vast majority of what you have heard is incorrect or false information,” he told the Landing Tuesday.
The developers, who have contributed over $1.4 million to Abbott since 2018, said they have not been contacted by the governor or his office, Harris said. “I would like to think that our elected officials would work a little harder digging in and finding facts before they make decisions,” he added. “I’m disappointed they didn’t.”
Looks like you have your work cut out for you there, Trey. Maybe all that money spent on Abbott wasn’t such a great investment.
Local officials say they are caught in a tough spot.
The county’s ability to regulate Colony Ridge is limited, County Judge Jay Knight said. He added that the Harris brothers have not violated any local, state or federal laws he is aware of, but the county’s hands are tied.
“Development rules in Texas favor developers,” he said. “They have a huge lobby, and they don’t want the cradle to be upset.”
Knight has been county judge for four years, but said that when Colony Ridge was first under construction in 2011, basic infrastructure was inadequate — drawing comparisons to the colonia communities along the Mexican border — and developers moved too fast.
The county has little oversight of development in the unincorporated area, Knight said. Water and sewer are independently supplied to the development. And there is a two-year holding period during which Colony Ridge is responsible for road upkeep before the county can take over maintenance. Knight said he has worked with the Harris brothers to secure adequate detention and water fencing ponds after the development cleared the trees, but that he can’t do much more.
Colony Ridge is desperate for resources, Knight said. Whether that’s supplying the community with recreational spaces, addressing environmental concerns, crime or the rising school district population.
“You can’t change momentum,” he said. “You can’t control, but you can manage through negotiation, education.”
By far, the funniest outcome of this little drama would be a crackdown on what developers like the Harris brothers can do in unincorporated county areas. I can already hear the cheers from the sustainable growth community. I feel bad for the residents of Colony Ridge, who don’t deserve any of this vitriol. The rest is a Republican-on-Republican problem – I for one would pay good money to see the likes of Briscoe Cain and Valoree Swanson try to convince even-bigger-idiot Steve Toth about the “facts” of Colony Ridge – and I am here for it. The Chron has more.