State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, filed a bill in Austin this week that will allow a county’s commissioners court to review any landowner’s request for a municipal utility district in a city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ.
Currently, landowners can bypass a county review and take their request directly to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality without any prior review from a city or county commissioners court.
House Bill 738 also would allow county commissioners to submit recommendations and concerns to the TCEQ regarding a district’s creation.
“I believe that the best way to approach any issue is to ensure that all stakeholders have a place at the table,” Crownover said. “As Denton County grows, it is vital that we plan for that growth in an open, respectful and inclusive manner.”
Supporters of the bill say the House bill will allow every stakeholder to address and possibly avoid any future conflicts.
Under the proposed bill, any recommendations a county submits to the TCEQ would not be mandates, only suggestions for the state agency to consider, officials said.
State officials say the bill would allow discussions that may be beneficial to a city and county.
A utility district is an entity created by either a county, state legislation or the TCEQ and works like a school district. Like a school district, a utility district has its own board members, boundaries and tax rate.
And creating a district takes at least four steps when it’s requested in a city’s ETJ. First, a landowner submits a petition to the Legislature, and the Legislature reviews the petition followed by a city review, and then an election is held for residents to vote for or against the district.
However, if the city denies consent during its review, then a landowner can petition the city to extend its infrastructure at the city’s expense.
If, within 120 days, the city fails to provide the petitioned services, the applicant may petition the TCEQ for district and the city’s consent is presumed.
Simply put, a city can either work with a landowner and reach an agreement that benefits both parties or the city can deny consent and allow the TCEQ to grant the developer a district without any input from the city or county.
“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?” Denton County Commissioner Hugh Coleman said.
Coleman supports the bill and says it will require developers to approach the county, which sometimes has to cover some of the costs because the TCEQ does not allow developers to collect taxes for road maintenance.
The difference between a legislature-created district and one created by the TCEQ is that the Legislature will grant a district road creation authority. The TCEQ, on the other hand, will only grant a district water and sewer powers, placing road maintenance on a county’s budget.
“When you get a district approved by the state, the state gives you all the bells and whistles,” Coleman said. “Our issue is that when a developer goes to the TCEQ, the TCEQ doesn’t grant road authority to the developer. And we’re stuck having to foot the bill.”
Landowners seeking to create a district say that local entities should be able to give their thoughts on a district, but ultimate control should remain with whoever owns the land.
The bill will only apply to districts created in a city’s ETJ, the area of land the state grants to a city to define a boundary for future growth of the city limits.
Between 2000 and 2012, the number of districts in the county more than doubled, jumping from 27 to 56, according to the TCEQ records. Denton County has approximately 50 active utility districts.
Some districts are developed and others are waiting on ideal economic conditions before breaking ground.
Officials said with the growth of utility districts in the county, the bill will allow cities and counties to better influence their growth.
Coleman said he expects the proposed bill to have a tough time passing at the state level because he said it’s easier to kill a bill than it is to pass one.
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.