Saturday, June 19, 2010

Development Standards Committee of The Woodlands Township

Recently, I attended a Development Standards Committee (DSC) meeting to observe what transpires these days in a regular meeting.  Resident attendance was abnormally high at this meeting.  There were one or two unusual resident issues to handle on the agenda available at the front desk, apparently creating a higher-than-normal interest. I picked this month for two reasons – (1) the Woodlands Board of Directors has been receiving applications for positions on this committee and are currently determining who will be appointed to the board for the coming year.  Next week, the board selects the new members. I was observing behaviors and interactions among the committee members and between residents and committee. (2) One resident has been telling his story publicly. I wanted to see what happened first hand on this particular issue.
I bring my observations for your consideration and interest. Walking in the door of the township service center, I found a number of residents and contractors waiting in the lobby. I signed the guest register for the meeting and proceeded to the conference room. I discovered that the protocol is to wait in the lobby until called, a bit different than other meetings where you just walk in. The committee was having a light dinner, so I returned to the lobby. A staff member announced the meeting was ready to commence, so we all walked to the main conference room.
Similar to a RDRC meeting, the committee sits in a U-shaped configuration facing each other and the overhead projection screen, with some visitors sitting on the side and others behind the chairperson. I understand in normal months, when there are fewer visitors, everyone sits to the side so that each can see more of the board member faces and the chairperson.     
On this occasion as others, in advance of the meeting it was recommended by staff to place a number of agenda items on the Summary List. That is, variances that had been reviewed and were considered to be OK as submitted or needed some modifications as recommended by an RDRC and the homeowners were present to acknowledge agreement. Also included was an application change of a property for Fire Station #8 on Gosling Rd.  These were all read to those attending and approved by one vote of the committee. The other requests were considered individually by the committee.
Several items on the agenda confused me. I either missed them or they were not considered at all. All were characterized as “consideration and action on legal action, regarding failure to comply with the Covenants and Standards for outstanding violations on the home”. But there was one of these that did make it to discussion that drew considerable attention. This one revealed a power struggle between a resident and the committee.  He was given 3 minutes to state his case and he did. The resident in his mind was repairing a fence that had been damaged by a hurricane. One of the fences encloses a dog area in his backyard. He also has an adjoining pool area enclosed by a fence, but that fence did not incur damage from the storm. Due to a change in height of the fence of the dog enclosure, within the limits of the covenants, he was asked to replace the fence pool area fence as well, based on consistency and appearance for the entire fence. Additionally, he was required to obtain a fence permit for his pool. He had volunteered to replace the fence for appearance but verbally refused to obtain a permit. Another resident came as a witness and also testified on his behalf. He was given 3 minutes. That gentleman was interrupted as he spoke because one member of the board and the chairman interrupted him and stated that what he was saying was irrelevant. I found that to be insulting, and am sure he did also. The proper way to handle the issue was to allow the resident to speak, receive the arguments he had and then tell the resident that the argument was irrelevant and could not be used to support the case. There is no reason to be disrespectful. I was uncertain at the end if the argument was or was not relevant, due to the way it was handled. The motion was made and passed requiring him to change the fence and get the permit. He walked out saying he would not comply with the permit request, because he already had a permit for a pool fence. His modifications would obviously exceed the safety criteria provided by the original permitted fence. Here was a case of an apparent power struggle. The human aspect of the situation did not seem to be handled very well. This could end up to be a high cost legal action for the township for a relatively minor issue.
In my view, residents generally managed to present their proposals easily enough with the assistance of staff, but it seemed that many were in a position of compromise. They wanted their application variance to be approved but looked to the committee for ideas to get it approved. For this reason, it appeared that much more information than necessary was discussed. In some cases, the resident was drilled on specifications of the materials being used, when in my opinion, those questions were simply irrelevant to the case. 
A desired outcome of a committee meeting should be consensus between resident and committee. There should be no feeling of superiority by the committee or a feeling of abused power upon a resident.  There should not be a feeling of injustice. All should be logical, guided by the covenants and common sense. Thinking beyond the box in this case, I think we may be a little short in due process. If there is a feeling of injustice, we should have a means for arbitration, if only to provide a means to hear a case of injustice, not on the technicalities of the covenants themselves.
Some of the case decisions considered by this committee can have significant financial impact. One application had a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  For this reason, some serious attention to skills must be given to the process of appointing a committee, especially the chairperson, who must make decisions on order and psychological impact. In fact, Experience is important but more important are the philosophies and attitudes embraced by the candidate. A candidate must embrace the covenants as his bible; he must possess excellent interpersonal skills; he must embrace objectivity in decisions; he must be able to distinguish between right and wrong ethically; he must know and understand the value system of The Woodlands; he must be respectful to peers and residents alike. This is a demanding job that should not be filled with a person unable to put himself in the shoes of a resident that is making the application and at the same time put himself in the shoes of his neighbors. The integrity and general quality of our neighborhoods depend on the decisions of this committee.
I can see that individuals on the committee should have certain roles to fulfill the needs of this job. Within the committee, some knowledge of architecture is required in some roles, but I do not see the need to have “experts”. We do need experience in The Woodlands for every single member. Each one should be a resident. We need at least one member able to communicate well, one who is efficient oriented, one who has neighborhood vision, one who will defend a resident, one who is technically competent  and one who has legal skills. The idea is to have a good effective team; we have to fill roles and skill needs on this committee for it to work as we would like it to work.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Attending a MUD Meeting in The Woodlands

As clear as Woodlands Texas MUD?  Attending a MUD (Municipal Utility District) meeting isn’t that bad! Yes, there are some technical parts of the discussions and yes, there are financial parts of the discussions, and yes, it is not the most exciting thing a person could do.  I can say there were very few things I did not understand, but then again I have a background in drilling wells and finance.
Anyone can attend a MUD meeting. It is healthy to experience one, for both the board of directors and you.  Showing interest connects the board to its customers and its customers to the district. I sure don’t advocate going to every meeting, but I do recommend that every resident attends at least one, preferably for the district providing water service to their home.
The MUD #60 meeting I attended this month addressed a resident’s issue with soil erosion and received reports from the various agencies affecting MUD business. Of high interest to us, is the implementation of the San Jacinto River Authority Groundwater Reduction Fee. This will be fully communicated to all Woodlands residents by Jim Stinson and staff in the JPA. Residents will likely incur an additional fee of $0.50/1000 gallons of water used, starting with their October bill. Concurrently, all the MUDs need to develop a higher well contingency fund for replacing a well, should that be needed. The cost of a well has increased substantially since the last raise of contingency fund collections.
An hour spent at a meeting can be an eye opener. Minutes for a Woodlands MUD are not as accessible as those for the county or the township. They are available per the Texas Open Records Act. A copy can be acquired at a meeting or from the district’s secretary. Current agenda is posted at the utility district office near Grogan’s Mill and Lake Robins.
Operations of a MUD
Each MUD has its own budget to manage.  Each has its own assets to manage. Each district has authority over a defined geographic area. Here in The Woodlands, for efficiency purposes, maintenance and financial services are aggregated and shared among the districts. This practice helps them to keep operating costs down. Each MUD is responsible for its entire service process. All MUDs here have an interlocal contract for those shared services to the Joint Powers Agency (JPA), a nonprofit created for this purpose. The district scope of authority is limited to the reclamation, drainage, acquisition, and distribution of water.  It includes the streams and ditches associated with water runoff, as well as the infrastructure required to provide those services.  A MUD has no limit on capital investment. The Board of Directors consist of five elected residents of the district. Every even year (e.g., 2000, 2002, … 2010), there can be an election on the first Saturday of May. If there are no challenging candidates, incumbents are automatically elected and there is no election. Each board elects representatives to serve on the Joint Powers board. Taxation is by the MUD. Those elected represent the tax dollars paid by residents in the MUD district. Taxation is driven by capital expenses, i.e., sewage facilities and wells. Bi-monthly water bills are for sewage, water and cost of operation. Now we head into a new era, where surface water will begin to play an increasing role in our potable water supplies, raising the cost of water to the district. For many people, watering lawns likely will eventually be cost prohibitive.     
Some but not all resident issues with drainage or water supply can be addressed by the board. Sometimes, residents work directly with the JPA to resolve problems. For example, I recently assisted a resident, to resolve a long standing serious problem with sewage flooding in her home. The JPA came up with a solution that should fix that problem.
In 2010, there were no challengers to the board in this district. To challenge an incumbent, one must follow a procedure outlined in the charter. Contact your local MUD representative for timing detail and procedure.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Township Board Workshop Meeting - June 17

The Woodlands Township Board of Directors will conduct its first Board of Directors Workshop on Thursday, June 17, 2010. This is not intended to be a voting meeting, but can be. Looking at the agenda, this will have a single vote, since there is a consent list for approval. This will be one of two meetings this month for the new seven member board to manage the affairs of the township. This meeting will be held at 9am at The Woodlands Township Board Chambers, 10001 Woodloch Forest Drive, Suite 600, The Woodlands, Texas 77380. About one week afterward, a second meeting for the month will be in the evening at 6pm at the township service center on Lake Woodlands, across the street from the United Methodist Church. The intent of that meeting is to make decisions in the presence of interested residents. We all hope that residents take more of an interest in what occurs. I plan to be at both meetings. Do you? Link to Agenda