Shared from the 1/30/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition


Visions clash over where to put tollway intersection in Fort Bend

Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Howard Cohen, Bill Jameson and George Foundation CEO Roger Adamson walk across land owned by the foundation.

Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Segment C of the Grand Parkway could one day pass through this area near Richmond.

Dust kicking up from his heels, Roger Adamson said he would be perfectly content if this pristine piece of land south of Richmond owned by The George Foundation stayed mostly untouched, dirt road and all.

Growth in Fort Bend County and the rest of the region is coming, however, and somewhere along this flat stretch of farmland the Grand Parkway eventually will cross the Fort Bend Tollway.

Where county leaders eventually decide to put that intersection will have an impact far beyond the typical road, with potential ripple effects on the cost to build the toll roads, the types of development that will replace that tranquil farmland and how much philanthropic money comes to Fort Bend County. The land closest to the intersection is expected to have a future worth of $500 million.

For years, the location of the crossing was envisioned on land owned by the George Foundation, the 80-year-old nonprofit created “for the betterment of the people of Fort Bend County.” The foundation, which Adamson runs, has plans for a master-planned community the size and scope of The Woodlands across more than 12,000 acres, anchored at the crossing.

Fort Bend County Commissioners Court shook up that vision last October, voting with no public discussion to approve an agreement with Rosenberg Land Holdings, an entity formed by the Signorelli Company. The agreement states it is the county’s intent to move the intersection to land the Signorelli Company has an option to buy. Two months later, the court, again without public comment or explanation, voted to change the county’s road plan to reflect the new location of the interchange.

With their properties separated by less than a mile, the foundation and Signorelli remain far apart in terms of which is better for the county: build now or reap potentially more much later.

The recent decisions by county officials to set routes for the toll roads favor Signorelli’s plan, but further approvals and changes are needed. With both proposed projects years from reality, nothing is certain. As homes and businesses replace fields, however, the paths for the two roads come into focus, making the coming months crucial to influencing where they go.

In a statement, Signorelli Company officials said they plan to break ground on the first part of their 4,700-acre Austin Point development in mid-2022.

“Austin Point is expected to be a catalyst to the corridor, bringing critical population mass supporting the efforts of building the final legs of the Grand Parkway,” the company stated, noting it is the largest master-planned community announced in the county in 20 years.

What George Foundation officials envision, however, is a project that will take much longer to sprout but could become far larger and more profitable for county residents. It also would pour tens of millions into the charity’s bank account that eventually could be used to reduce homelessness, award scholarships for hundreds of college-bound and nursing students, provide materials for disaster relief and invest in local public health programs.

“We are looking at this as an opportunity to do something substantial,” said Adamson, CEO of the foundation, which owns thousands of acres of farmland north of FM 762. “Something that will set the course of this area and this county.”

In the interim, county officials have remained tight-lipped, declining any comment on the matter. County Judge KP George, through a spokeswoman, referred questions to the county engineer’s office and toll road authority, neither of which would identify why Fort Bend favors Signorelli’s route, outside of it being a political decision made by Commissioners Court.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Grady Prestage, who represents the area, did not respond to requests for comment. Precinct 1 Commissioner Vincent Morales, whose precinct included the area south of Sugar Land until the four districts were redrawn in November, declined comment.

The lack of thorough and open discussion has alarmed some, namely supporters of the foundation’s goals.

“Not one member of the court stood up and said, ‘This is why we are doing this,’ ” said Bill Jameson, a former foundation board member and consultant who has been active in the county for decades.

Prime location

On a sunny Thursday morning, days after the last raindrops fell south of Sugar Land and Smithers Lake, Dutch John Creek is merely a dry wash, crossed by a wooden bridge set behind acres of farmland.

In this flat country, trees are about all that mark where the water goes during rains, lining the banks and boggy spots where drainage stays a bit longer. The only signs of human activity are peripheral: paths worn by pickups and farm machinery around the trees, smokestacks of the power plant to the north towering over the trees along the horizon, garbage trucks rumbling along FM 762 toward the dump.

Otherwise, this tract could have looked exactly the same a century ago, when farmhands and ranchers roamed it in droves.

Both the foundation and Signorelli have arguments for why the crossing should be on their land, and both stand to make millions on the assorted developments once the roads converge. It is just a matter of how much, the most valuable site being wherever commercial development can get closest to the exits around the interchange.

Those big plans rest on where the toll roads cross, and that is up to county officials. To accommodate the decision to move the crossing, the new lines also adjust where the Grand Parkway and the tollway approach that point.

The eventual crossing already has benefited the reelection campaigns for county officials, though only by a fraction of their fundraising totals.

Since early 2019, Danny Signorelli has donated $23,000 to Morales, according to campaign financial reports filed with Fort Bend County, all of it when the presumptive tollway crossing was in his district. Signorelli contributed $12,500 to Prestage over the past year, $7,500 of it since September, a few months prior to the site moving into his precinct.

George, meanwhile, received $2,500 in September for his re-election bid.

The donations amount to less than 2 percent of the money raised by Prestage and Morales and about 1 percent of George’s haul.

Signorelli did not respond when asked to comment on the decision to donate or their relationship to the development.

A review of campaign finance records did not show any donations from foundation executives, though companies involved with current and former board members were active politically.

Deal or no deal

Right now, both toll roads are “just lines on a map,” Fort Bend County Engineer Stacy Slawinski said.

The problem is Fort Bend has two maps and the lines have not matched since at least 2015.

The 2013 record of decision for the Grand Parkway

the detailed plan crafted by the state that allows Texas officials to proceed with a federally cleared highway — placed the intersection on the foundation land. The county’s road plan, which guides local planning, placed it on land owned by the Moore family, another prominent farming family in the area, whose patriarch, Hilmar Moore, served as mayor of Richmond from 1949 until his death in 2012.

Slawinski said as early as 2015 officials re-evaluated the county road plan but left the discrepancy.

Four years later, Signorelli finalized a deal to buy about 4,000 acres of the Moore farm to add to about 700 the company had acquired. In comments to county officials, Danny Signorelli said his entire project was based on the interchange being where it was reflected on the county’s map, not where it is on the Grand Parkway’s proposed design.

Days later, Jameson — a consultant and former board member of the foundation who helped found the county toll road authority — met with county officials and urged them to remedy the discrepancy. In February 2020, the county maps were changed, putting the interchange on the foundation land. Signorelli cried foul.

“It shifted the intersection from where we made a business decision to invest,” he told county commissioners last month.

His efforts to get the maps changed back prompted nearly two years of discussions and a study that did not find either crossing superior. Consultants with Huitt-Zollars, instead, proposed a third option placing the crossing where both the foundation and Signorelli Company could share it.

“That went nowhere,” Slawinski said.

Changing lanes

Work on the Grand Parkway, a massive 180-mile third outer loop of the Houston area, goes back 50 years. For half that, plans called for a new tollway coming south from U.S. 59 — now Interstate 69 — southwest of Sugar Land and northeast of Rosenberg, threading between Smithers Lake and Brazos Bend State Park on its way toward Texas 288 in Brazoria County.

The parkway, while controversial, has been a priority for local elected leaders, who believe it will open up thousands of acres for new residential and commercial development.

With that potential, the project went through years of public meetings and designs, coordinated by the Texas Department of Transportation. The state works with local officials to oversee and build the tollway, an agreement often referred to as primacy. Counties have the rights to develop and build their portions of the Grand Parkway, or cede that responsibility to TxDOT.

Fort Bend County’s authority to build the parkway, however, is limited to the project presented by the larger Grand Parkway efforts. It has far more authority over where to run the Fort Bend Tollway extension.

Changing the plans for the Grand Parkway, in all likelihood, would require a new environmental analysis, which can start only with TxDOT notifying the public of a re-evaluation of its plan. TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said officials are aware of the discussions on the Grand Parkway location in Fort Bend Count, but have not initiated the process to reevaluate the route.

In his agreement with Fort Bend County, Signorelli has agreed to pay for the re-evaluation.

Long road ahead

Anyone who has taken or chaperoned a field trip to the George Ranch Historical Park knows the history, but not necessarily the heft of the foundation that oversees the ranch. Adamson, the foundation’s CEO and a Richmond native, said current holdings amount to about 22,000 acres, making it the county’s largest landholder. Of that, 16,000 acres are operated as farmland.

Farms, however, will make way for more development, as the realities of Fort Bend County and the foundation’s finances change. With about $475 million in assets, according to its 2019 tax report, the George Foundation is balancing its ownership of land that is increasingly valuable with its obligations for charitable giving, which include plans to spend $140 million over the next five years.

Without turning some of that land into more money as its value increases dramatically, Adamson said, the assets become imbalanced.

“We are thinking about 100 years from now, how is the foundation supporting the community?” he said.

Adamson also argued the foundation is offering much more free land to the county, along both the Fort Bend Tollway and the Grand Parkway. Both Signorelli and the foundation have made offers for donating land, though the specifics and fine print of both vary.

The George Foundation, however, has far more land coming to the county practically for free — 11 miles along the Grand Parkway and 3 miles along the Fort Bend Parkway, based on their current routes. Foundation officials, meanwhile, also sought some control over drainage planning, landscaping and other features.

Now, Adamson frets that the county will hand Signorelli the more prosperous site but will want the foundation to follow through on giving up its own land at favorable rates. For the foundation, which as a nonprofit cannot lobby officials like Signorelli can, that is a tough decision. The less money it makes on the deal, the less money it has to give out.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to treat that land as an asset,” Adamson said. “We aren’t going to give it away.”

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