Photo: Jason Fochtman, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
After weeks of uproar from local residents, plans to change the development on Mitchell Island have been temporarily put on hold by the Howard Hughes Corp.
A request from the Howard Hughes Corp. to replat the 16-acre island that was scheduled to be discussed Thursday by the Houston Planning Commission has now been “pulled back,” one company official said and will not be discussed on Thursday. Because The Woodlands is not an incorporated city, changes to plat plans are first heard by the Houston Planning Commission due to the extra-territorial jurisdiction the city has that includes The Woodlands.
Instead of proceeding with the replat request process, Howard Hughes officials will gather more community feedback in coming weeks before continuing the process, said Heath Melton, executive vice president of residential master planned communities in Houston for the Howard Hughes Corp.
Now, the company will schedule meetings with residents and others concerned about the island’s future as well as the habitat of a local family of American Bald Eagles. Some of those residents have already formed an informal group — Citizens for Eagle Island — in the past week as a way to raise awareness of the bald eagles.
“We have of our own accord pulled the replat (request) from (Thursday’s) agenda. The way it works is this, when we as an applicant, if we decided to pull the replat (request), the city will recognize that,” Melton said. “It will show up on the agenda but not be discussed. We did that in order to have time to meet with these residents and provide them with all the information and facts that they have asked for.”
Melton said officials from Howard Hughes are very interested in listening to residents’ concerns about the proposal which would change the ILUD — initial land use designation — from 19 large homes to a combination of 58 new home designs with three different lot sizes and more dense housing than originally planned. Some of the concerns residents have raised include the additional homes, clear cutting of trees, more traffic in the East Shore area and also protecting the habitat of the bald eagles that use the island for hunting and relaxation.
Eagles presence dates to 1999
The presence of eagles in the area dates to 1999, Melton explained, when the first evidence of an American Bald Eagle nest was discovered by company officials and residents.
Lake Woodlands is a man-made lake, completed in 1986, and the body of water slowly evolved into a prime habitat for eagles. Since 1999, Melton said company officials have engaged in ethical, appropriate management of the area that has allowed the original eagle family to spawn more than 45 additional eagles that have now spread to other areas of the township such as around Bear Branch Park.
“We have a big focus on the environment. As we developed (The Woodlands), we have set aside roughly 30 percent of our 28,000 acres to designated open spaces. The Lake Woodlands is a man-made lake and so part of that construction created the environment and habitat for all of nature to thrive, including eagles. This includes forest buffers and parks which allows eagles to create nests, to hunt and thrive,” Melton said. “The eagle activity in the Lake Woodlands area has been part of everything that has been done by the (Woodlands) development company. The first sighting of the eagles dates to 1999 and we’ve had an on-staff environmental consultant that has tracked them since 1999. Most people do not know, maybe they do, but within The Woodlands, we have successfully helped foster the fledgling of 48 eagles. Of those 48, an estimated 31 of those have come from the Lake Woodlands area.”
Melton said many residents, especially those newer to the community, don’t know the full history of the eagles and the commitment to their protection by Howard Hughes officials.
“When people don’t know that (history), it is good to remind people that everything we’ve done has been to foster the growth of the eagles. Everything we have done as a company has helped foster the eagles here in the Montgomery County area,” he added.
Melton said every eagle family and nest in the community is monitored by the designated company official, tracked and an annual report is made that is submitted to state and federal wildlife officials.
“(That is) To make sure we are not invasive with any of the eagle’s nests in regard to our developments,” he added.
Locals form eagle preservation group
The decision to not move forward with the process comes after weeks of outcry over new development plans for Mitchell Island that would change current plans for 19 homes to a new format that would see 58 homes built on the only island in the township. And, on Monday, a group of local residents unveiled another approach to combat plans for the only island: forming a committee to protect the island for use by a nearby family of American Bald Eagles.
East Shore resident Tami Houston said she and about 10 to 12 people have created the new group “Citizens for Eagle Island,” a reference to the use of four American Bald Eagles that regularly visit the island she said. The new group recently visited the island and after several hours, spotted members of the eagle family in one of the trees on the island.
“We are forming a group called ‘Citizens for Eagle Island.’ The eagles are really important within the whole Grogan’s Mill (area). We’ve had three clear-cuts (of trees) recently, and the biggest thing (for us) is (Mitchell) island was supposed to be the least-dense area in East Shore,” Houston explained. “To change it to 58 homes, it takes away natural areas for wildlife, it takes away from the eagles’ habitat. It is the only island in any lake in The Woodlands. It would be sad if it was gone and became buildings instead of trees on the island.”
The formation of the group was news to officials from the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the island and has plans for possible development of the 16-acre abode to add more homes than were originally planned. Melton said while some residents had raised questions about the eagles, he did not know of the formation of the new group.
Now, said Melton, the plans are in limbo because the company has rescinded their replat request for the time being.
“We are 100 percent committed to listening to the residents and working with them on any of their concerns. We are not in a hurry to (do this), we are willing to listen to resident’s concerns,” Melton added. “We have no intent on saying we’re going to resubmit the (replat request) on a certain date until we have an opportunity to meet with residents.”
Houston said the newly formed group of locals dedicated to saving the island habitat for the eagles is an off-shoot of a larger, 800 to 1,000-strong assemblage of area residents who object to the plans to change the layout of the island — currently set at 19 large mansions — to 58 closely-spaced homes. While the eagles are an important aspect of objections, she said that many issues have been raised with the development plants by Howard Hughes, from traffic congestion, noise, possibly 18 months of intensitve contruction and taking down of more trees in the area.
Although the group is not officially affiliated with the East Shore Homeowners Association, Houston said she and hundreds of others who signed onto a statement objecting to the new plans reside in the affected areas of East Shore and are already coping with two other new developments Howard Hughes has embarked on in the neighborhood directly north of The Woodlands Parkway and west of Grogan’s Mill Road adjacent to Lake Woodlands.
“The replat (documents) left off so many details (of plans). As more people signed it, more issues came up. We are trying to do what is right for everyone, us, the development company (Howard Hughes), for nature,” Houston added. “It is called ‘The Woodlands’ because there is woods. I think when you see the (continuing) development (and removal of trees), you just say, ‘wow.’ We are concerned about the natural environment.”
Melton said Howard Hughes representatives will be working with various community groups to schedule meetings and forums to listen to resident concerns and develop an appropriate response. Those sessions have yet to be scheduled, but he stressed the company will engage residents and listen to them as plans for the island continue to evolve and move forward.
Members of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors have been concerned about the plans and are tentatively scheduled to discuss the issue in some manner at their Oct. 22 meeting.