News

Colony Ridge developer defends Houston-area community as state leaders vow action against it

GOP leaders claim the development markets to undocumented people and is plagued by crime. One of its owners refutes the allegations and says he’s ready to show lawmakers that Colony Ridge isn’t different than any other rural Texas community.

The Terrenos Houston building in New Caney. The developer of Colony Ridge has become the target of allegations that it's marketing land to undocumented immigrants and the development is plagued by crime.
Joe Robles IV for The Texas Tribune
The Terrenos Houston building in New Caney. The developer of Colony Ridge has become the target of allegations that it’s marketing land to undocumented immigrants and the development is plagued by crime.

NEW CANEY — From the eye of a growing political hurricane, the developer of a massive residential community near Houston rejected allegations by conservative media and state elected officials that the development is a "magnet for illegal immigrants" whose streets are overrun by crime.

It's all "bullshit," said Trey Harris, who owns the development with his brother John and cousin Kevin, on Tuesday from their company's office in Liberty County.

In one of his most extensive interviews since the allegations began flooding right-wing media and Republican leaders started calling for action, Harris dismissed accusations that the development is flouting laws and using targeted Spanish-language marketing to attract undocumented people.

Critics of the developer's advertising have focused on ads that tell potential buyers they don't need a Social Security number to buy land in the community. There is no state or federal law against selling land to people who aren't citizens.

Harris said the company is helping people — many of them Latino — buy property. He defended their marketing, which he said is focused on the Houston area, because that’s where the bulk of his buyers live. Reports that the developer does mass advertising in Mexico, South America and Central America are false, he said.

"I know I’ve got people slinging mud at me," Harris said. "But to me that’s insignificant compared to the love I get from my customers, right? The love I get from my customers means way more, affects me mentally and emotionally way more than the naysayers."

State GOP leaders seem intent on investigating the development. Gov. Greg Abbott said issues pertaining to Colony Ridge will be addressed in an upcoming special legislative session, though he has not yet specified what he would ask lawmakers to do.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has said his office also is looking into Colony Ridge, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick toured the development by air Monday before saying the area needs more law enforcement. Following the tour, Patrick and Harris spoke for more than an hour.

Harris invited lawmakers, and state officials including Abbott, to tour the development Thursday and said 15 to 20 had accepted the invitation. Abbott — whose campaigns have received $1.4 million in donations from Harris since 2018 — was not among them. An Abbott spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Criticism of the development about 30 miles north of Houston is "new on the national scene, but it’s not new to us. We’ve been getting opposition since we started," Harris said, maps of Liberty and Montgomery counties hanging on a wall behind him. "I don’t know, but if it don’t go away, I’ll be more than happy to go to Austin and visit with whoever wants to talk."

Colony Ridge is a collection of subdivisions that cover about 33,000 acres and is home to roughly 40,000 people, Harris said.

A drive through a slice of it, near U.S. 59 and Texas 99, reveals a mix of modern, multi-story houses and mobile homes. Farther east sits the first subdivision the company developed in Liberty County, Montebello, where paved roads are flanked by newer homes and dirt roads lead to areas still under construction. Signs advertise houses for sale by Terrenos Houston, Colony Ridge's marketing and sales arm, as well as other companies.

Some lots have mobile homes in need of repair, others have trash strewn all over across the lawn — sights that Harris said are not unique in rural Texas developments and are no reason to cast judgment on residents.

Harris said some of his customers are builders who construct homes on the lots and sell them, some are people with enough money to buy a lot and build a typical suburban brick home, while others buy the land and build when they can afford to.

Harris said the land they sell — "dirt," as he called it — comes with water and sewer lines, paved roads and stormwater drainage. The company will finance land purchases, he added, typically with a 20-year note at a 12.9% interest rate.

Development in the Montebello area began in 2011, Harris said, and the first residents arrived in 2013. A decade later, the neighborhood has some brick and mortar storefronts along with people selling vegetables, fruits and fresh juice under roadside plastic canopies.

A. Carrasco, 52, said he and his family used to sell produce and other goods from a roadside stand in Colony Ridge until they saved up enough money to buy a plot of land in the community. In March, he opened a new store off a busy intersection near Montebello, selling produce ranging from cold coconuts to vegetables and cheeses — most of it imported from Mexico.

Carrasco, who declined to give his full name, said he has been following recent news about the development, and chalked it up to an upcoming election season. Some of the criticism — like crime — is a societal ill that accompanies any growing community that is not yet fully developed, he said.

A. Carrasco, 52, stands at the counter of his store on Oct. 2 in New Caney. Carrasco said his family’s business began as a traveling fruit stand before they opened the shop in March.
A. Carrasco, 52, stands at the counter of his store on Oct. 2 in New Caney. Carrasco said his family's business began as a traveling fruit stand before they opened the shop in March.

"I love it here, the weather, the environment, the space, everything," he said from behind the counter of his store, where baskets were filled with avocados and candied fruits. "Undocumented people are everywhere, not just here. They drive violence? There's violence everywhere too."

Sergio Placencia Rojas, a 56-year-old construction worker, said he moved to the development three years ago from an apartment in Houston, where he became fed up with crime after two of his cars were stolen in two weeks. He heard a commercial for Terrenos Houston on the radio and decided to buy a house.

He said he hasn't had any problems with crime. Other residents have complained about gunfire, he said, but he had never heard any near his home. But recently he's noticed more police patrolling his neighborhood's streets, he said.

"It's very tranquil. I like it. We haven't had any problems — we can leave the cars unlocked, nothing happens," he said. "The only crime here is the taxes."

 

Sergio Placencia Rojas, 56, sits in his vehicle in New Caney. He described the Colony Ridge development as “tranquil” and joked that the only crime in the area was his property taxes.
Sergio Placencia Rojas, 56, sits in his vehicle in New Caney. He described the Colony Ridge development as "tranquil" and joked that the only crime in the area was his property taxes.

Still, Colony Ridge has attracted steady criticism over the years from neighbors, who alleged in a lawsuit that Colony Ridge's development had led to flooding in nearby Plum Grove in areas that did not previously flood. The city and the development each recently won summary judgments in the long-running suit. A state district judge agreed that Colony Ridge was not to blame for the flooding and agreed with the city that it had been promised 2.6 acres as part of a development agreement, according to Bluebonnet News.

A 2017 Houston Chronicle report documented rising tensions between newcomers and people who had long lived in the area who complained about the new development straining public services.

More recently state elected officials, as well as an immigration think tank that's been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have painted a picture of a community where the streets are bloodied by cartel violence.

Harris said he could not guarantee there was not any cartel or drug activity, but he doubts the characterization by critics.

"Might there be someone that had a connection with the cartel or does have a connection with the cartel that lives (here), and that’s one of the 40,000 people living there? Yeah, I don’t have any way to know that," he said. "I don’t think there’s any more cartel activity in my neighborhood than there would be in any other neighborhood."

In response to claims that crime has skyrocketed in the area, Harris said Colony Ridge was being blamed for violence that didn't happen in the development, which pays for a dozen full-time law enforcement officers to patrol. Harris said he's noticed the arrival of state troopers recently — which he welcomed.

"They take a crime that’s nowhere even near my neighborhood and they say this crime happened [in Colony Ridge]," he said. "Well, crimes happen all the time."

Speaking to a conservative radio show last week, Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader said 10 of his deputies are paid by the homeowners association to patrol the area, but that they've still struggled to keep up with a "concerning" number of problems there — including thefts, drug overdoses, juvenile runaways and stray animals. He said there is a large number of gang members in the area, but added that gangs are a problem all over Liberty County and there’s "a bigger concentration of them in this subdivision because there’s so many more people up there."

Rader also pushed back against concerns from Abbott and others that the area has become a “no-go zone" — an area police don't enter due to safety risk.

It's unclear whether lawmakers will probe any of the older concerns that preceded the most recent accusations characterizing Colony Ridge as a safe haven for undocumented people.

Harris said he was not sure if his development will be included on the special session's call, but that he was working on gathering facts that refute the allegations to send to lawmakers.

"When they see that, this whole thing might just go away," he said.

He said he believes that Abbott is "a good guy" who made a mistake by not gathering information before talking about the development publicly.

"I think he’s gonna know he made a mistake when the facts come out about what’s really going on here," he said. "I’m curious to see how he reacts when he finds out he’s got egg on his face."

Robert Downen contributed to this story.