Humble ISD superintendent offers district’s perspective on 90-acre land deal dispute

Humble ISD and the Harris County Housing Authority seem to be at odds over 90.5 acres of land along West Lake Houston Parkway while the two public entities try to fulfill their individual missions.

The housing authority, which owns the land, wants to use the property to add more apartments and homes, while Humble ISD contends they need the land to build a middle school to help relieve overcrowding in the area.

HCHA proposes to use the land for a development called The View at Lake Houston — a mixed-use, mixed-income master plan community.

Residents in the area who oppose the development fear crime, additional overcrowding in the schools and traffic congestion if the housing authority plans go through.

The HCHA has owned the land since 2009 and partnered with Harris County in 2020 with the intention of building safe and affordable housing, which the entity said is needed now more than ever, The Observer reported in April.

Humble ISD’s previous two offers to purchase the land were turned down by the HCHA. The school district recently submitted a third and are awaiting the housing authority’s response.

At the time of publication, the HCHA had not responded to requests for a follow-up interview.

Dr. Elizabeth Fagen, superintendent of Humble ISD, shared further insight into the school district’s perspective.

Responses are edited for length and clarity.

Q: Did the district miss the opportunity to buy the 90-acre tract across the street when it went back up for sale in 2014?

A: At that time, we were growing at a slower pace, and we really thought Middle School 10 would take care of it. When you work with demographers like PASA, they give you a high, a moderate, and a low growth scenario. We had been kind of on track with the moderate growth one. We were really paying attention to those numbers, but then with this outlier year, we’re even above the high growth scenario. We do our very best not to overbuild and open empty buildings.

Q: Do you know what you’re on pace for next year?

A: We’re guessing around 1,300. That’s what we’re planning, staffing, and budgeting for. People think that’s not a lot, but it’s an entire middle school. Middle School 11 will move to the front of the pack with the bond passage.

Q: Talk to me a little bit about the conversation you had with Horace Allison at the Harris County Housing Authority that would prompt you guys to make an offer for the land.

A: We got wind through our Facility Rentals that they (Harris County Housing Authority) wanted to have a meeting at Centennial Elementary school during Thanksgiving break. We started hearing rumblings in the community and so kind of last minute, the chair of our Board Building and Planning Committee, Mr. (Robert) Sitton, would attend and find out what’s going on. He attended the meeting and said neighbors were upset about the HCHA plans to build this place called The View. We didn’t know what that was at the time. During the meeting, Mr. Sitton shared with the HCHA that if there was an option to purchase the land, Humble ISD would be first in line. The next thing I knew there was a request by Mr. (Gerald) Womack (Chairman, Board of Commission for HCHA), and Mr. Allison, to come meet with me.

Q: So, they initiated the conversation?

A: Yes, they initiated the whole thing. We discussed our needs and their land. I talked to them about how difficult the traffic infrastructure is on that part of West Lake Houston Parkway already. And 800 homes would be a huge challenge for all our campuses down there. They told us they paid $6.5 million, and they would probably need $10 million. Then they said they had a $1 million deposit with the MUD, but it would be transferred to us. I immediately sent a note to the board telling them this seemed like a win-win for us and here’s my plan. I don’t need board action to just give a Letter of Intent. Then it seemed like everything (in the relationship with HCHA) changed.

Q: You wouldn’t need the entire 90.5 acres for a middle school?

A: We know that all the land is not useable. The other thing that’s happening to us is that our elementaries in that area are just packed full of students. If we put an early childhood center next to that middle school, putting two schools next to each other, you enter a traffic study. If it was a high school and middle school, it would be difficult, but a middle school and an early childhood center would have very different hours and that could work out OK. I talked to (Harris County Precinct 3) Commissioner (Tom) Ramsey about the possibility of carving out the wetlands with the eagles, and the possibility of a park. It seemed like such a win-win but then our offer was voted down again.

Q: What now?

A: The last (offer) in the return letter said it didn’t meet their mission. We sent a third offer last Friday (May 13), I believe. Robert Sitton, our board building planning chair, and I talked about the fact that we have a piece of land on this side of the district that is unlikely to be used because we have built the other facilities larger. That piece of land could be used for their mission, and we adjusted our offer so that the land plus the offer is the appraised value. We haven’t heard anything back yet.

Q: One of the complaints from the community is traffic. If you build a school there, won’t that increase traffic as well?

A: Our advantage is that we will use buses and they will help decrease traffic flow. There’s not a lot of walkers in that area so it will largely be a bused area. Balmoral is adding 1,000 homes, Lakewood Pines is building out. We’ve tried to work together to figure out how to help the best we can with our boundaries with our busing.

Q: How many students do you plan for Middle School 11 if you use that land there?

A: We’d build for 1,250 and the early childhood center would be much smaller since the teacher to student ratio is much smaller.

Q: What happens if they decide they’re going to build?

A: Well, that’s a great question. Do we have other options? I think our goal all along has been let’s find a win-win. We’re two entities of government. We should be working in tandem in the public’s best interest, and the best interest and best use of this land is for a school in an area of our community and city that’s very crowded. It’s a wonderful place to live. But we need more seats.

Q: There’s no other 50 other acres inside that area of the district for you to go build another middle school?

A: No, in fact, we spent a great deal of time on Google Earth as a team. We’re always trying to make sure as a fast growth district that we’re two or three steps ahead of that. We’re always looking for land. The reality is in that part of the district, that southeastern quadrant, there is no land, it’s all been purchased. It’s all being built out. What’s left is our 150 acres up there (for a high school and stadium) and the 90 acres. That’s it.

Q: Does that mean it might come down to eminent domain?

A: You know, it’s a last resort. In our history, we don’t go there. It’s a last resort, no question about it. It’s something we would have to consider if we have no space for kids. That’s just the position that we could be in.

Q: Are you at the breaking point?

A: I think we’ll probably top out at about 55,000 students by the end of the decade. And it could be a lot sooner than that.

Q: Anything else you want to say?

A: We offered $11.2 million plus the 23 acres of land that would help them meet their mission, and we think that’s reasonable. We don’t want to overpay. They paid $6.5 million for it and there’s no doubt that it’s worth more today than it was then. The truth is, I believe this community loves this school district. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re filling up like we are.

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