The owner of a housing development in southeast Texas that far-right officials have labeled a magnet for undocumented immigrants and crime told lawmakers Thursday that complaints about the neighborhood are patently false and possibly politically motivated.
The testimony by John Harris, the CEO of the Colony Ridge development, came at the same time Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released a letter specifically blaming two Republicans for enabling the development's growth.
The two lawmakers in question — state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd — voted to remove Paxton from office earlier this year after the Texas House presented articles of impeachment against the AG to the state senate. Paxton was eventually acquitted.
A House panel heard invited testimony Thursday about Colony Ridge after Gov. Greg Abbott directed lawmakers to investigate the community. Abbott's call followed a surge in reports on Colony Ridge in conservative media, along with other statements, including a press release from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, which fueled the notion the 33,000-acre spread was a hotbed for cartel activity and other crime.
"We have all heard and seen stories in the media that are pretty unbelievable sounding and you would be right to think that because most of them aren't true," Harris told the House State Affairs Committee Thursday, citing a story published in May from by the Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right organization that advocates for limited immigration.
Harris pushed back on that narrative, telling lawmakers Colony Ridge and his company grew out of what he and his partners saw as a smart investment and need for affordable housing.
"I started this company with my brother and my cousin, and we started by buying lots in old subdivisions that no one wanted, and we sold them to people that no one else would sell to," he said. "And we did really well."
Harris said that his company has since donated land for schools, a county sheriff's annex, and a community center, adding that the development was approved by the county commissioner's court.
But according to Paxton, the area is stretched thin and struggles to provide basic resources and safety.
"The scale of the Colony Ridge development has proved unmanageable for effective law enforcement and other key standards of acceptable governance. Violent crime, drug trafficking, environmental deterioration, public disturbances, infrastructure overuse, and other problems have plagued the area and nearby towns," Paxton wrote to the state's delegation in the U.S. Congress. "Upon investigation, the Office of the Attorney General found that Colony Ridge in particular was made possible by a specific arrangement created by Senator Robert Nichols and Representative Ernest Bailes."
During Harris' testimony, State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, said he received the Paxton letter and asked Harris about some of its allegations, specifically about a line stating Colony Ridge "has drawn far too many people and enabled far too much chaos for the current arrangement to be tolerated by the state."
Harris said he hadn't seen the letter but refuted that claim, as well as another saying the area "has proved unmanageable for effective law enforcement and other key standards of acceptable governance."
"I don't think that's fair at all and I wish he would have come out himself to see what's actually there," Harris said. "I think most of that can be disproved easily."
State Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, later asked Harris how the development suddenly became such a volatile issue.
"[Did] you make somebody mad? What the hell happened? I mean why are we even here doing this?" he asked.
Harris said he didn't know the answer but that he's fielded complaints from a neighboring county. He said it more likely had to do with politics.
"I am guessing that part of it is political somewhere," said Harris. "It's known that we donated money to Gov. Abbott's enemies. I don't know."
Later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said reports that the area was a "no-go zone" for law enforcement weren't true.
"There is no such thing as a no-go zone in Texas," he said. "Our troopers can go anywhere, [the sheriff's] deputies can go anywhere in that regard. So, that was taken care of."
McCraw added that crime in the area exists but wasn't anything out of the ordinary for a community and county of that size. He also compared it to larger areas where DPS has performed law enforcement surge operations.
"The numbers, for example, when you compare it to our operations in Austin in a similar-sized area [with] a similar-sized population, it's night and day," McCraw said. "We're seeing a lot more drugs, stolen vehicles and felony arrests in the Austin area than we are in Liberty County."
Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader backed up those claims. He confirmed there is a gang presence and some cartel operatives but said they have been keeping quiet and aren't overrunning law enforcement.
"There have been no cartel arrests for crimes in Liberty County in the last three years," he said, adding that there was one homicide in the development in 2022 and one so far this year. He also downplayed reports about deaths from drug overdoses in the area the local school district, Cleveland ISD, covers.
"There have not been 17 drug overdose deaths at Cleveland ISD," he said. "There have been 17 confirmed overdoses, but not deaths."
After his testimony, Harris told reporters that most of the people who buy land in Colony Ridge are from neighboring Harris County, home to Houston.
"The only border that they worry about crossing is Liberty County line," he said. He added that there are undocumented immigrants in his development, but that isn't new to Texas.
"We assume there are some because I assume there are some in every neighborhood. But just like every bank that I know of in Texas, we don't ask status when we do a loan," he said. "The truth is I don't care. I want to help people. I want to help families. I want to give them a place to live."
When asked if Abbott added the item to the special session call because of outside pressure, Harris demurred.
"People make decisions in politics that are confusing to me sometimes," he said. "I just assume that there is something going on behind the scenes that I don't know about. I am not going to say anything bad about Gov. Abbott. I don't think he's a bad governor."
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