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THE WOODLANDS, TX-As a moratorium expiration approaches that would allow annexation by Houston, a PAC has formed to push the 28,000-acre Woodlands down the road to become an independent city. A well-known economist, though, says there is no cause for alarm about annexation despite the $14 billion of commercial and non-commercial development since 1970.

With the moratorium expiring in 2011, political action groups like the Vote Our Independent Choice Election PAC have sprung up to encourage voters in November to cast ballots to remove the Woodlands from Houston’s extraterritorial jurisdiction range. Such groups have been bolstered by the Texas Legislature’s passage of SB 1012 and CSHB 4109. Both bills authorize the Town Center Improvement District of the Woodlands to take on greater authority, which includes regional participation agreements with the City of Houston. If voters approve the referendum, PAC leaders claim the Woodlands will be well on its way toward eliminating the threat of potential annexation by Houston.

But Barton Smith, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting and professor of economics at the University of Houston, says Houston may not necessarily be ready to swoop in and claim the Woodlands as a bona fide suburb. “The threat of annexation has greatly diminished,” Smith says.

During its formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, the Woodlands was little more than a bedroom community. “The Woodlands today is a city in and of itself. It has a strong employment base, a strong retail base, large residential areas and clearly capabilities of standing alone,” Smith says.

Additionally, unlike the 1970s and 1980s, Houston’s ability to annex areas these days is somewhat hindered by the Texas Legislature and economic realities. Smith tells GlobeSt.com that once upon a time, cities like Houston could snap up unincorporated areas and cities. But when Houston attempted to annex Kingwood in the mid-1990s, the battle ended up before the Texas Supreme Court, rendering a decision that ultimately led to the passage of Texas SB 89 that curbed annexation rights.

There also is the fact that the Woodlands is not a close-in suburb: it’s 30 miles north of the Houston line. “Houston doesn’t want to lose its tax base. But on the other hand, the enormity of trying to provide services to communities so far away is burdensome,” Smith says.

Smith points out that Houston’s annexation of the City of Clear Lake in the late 1970s was a good example of the concept gone awry. Because Clear Lake is 25 miles from Houston, it took awhile for some city services to reach the annexed area.

This is where contracts such as regional participation agreements involving revenue sharing between Houston and its suburbs and extraterritorial jurisdictions come into play. Smith acknowledges he’s not certain if the Woodlands-Houston agreement is similar to other city-suburb agreements, but if it is, he says it represents a win-win situation for everyone.

“The City of Houston has benefited by contracts with its suburbs for revenue sharing, in which there is no follow-up responsibility such as making sure they have water, fire and police protection,” Smith explains. “If this new arrangement associated with the Woodlands is similar to that, I can’t imagine the City of Houston would balk at it or push for annexation.”

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