Developer of controversial Kingwood high rises fields residents’ questions
As it was on Jan. 15, the meeting room in Kingwood Community Center had to be widened to house everyone wanting to learn more about the controversial Kingwood marina project on Monday night.
But for this gathering, also in attendance was a figure the community wanted to hear from — Romerica Group CEO Gabriel Haddad, whose company is the developer of The Herons Kingwood Marina.
Before Haddad got to speak, John Manlove, CEO of the firm handling The Herons’ marketing told the 300-plus crowd of people that behind the project is a person and not a conglomerate.
“I am sorry — I am sorry if I’ve caused you any discomfort or trouble,” said Haddad, who had a crutch by his side due to a skiing accident overseas. “That was not my idea.”
Besides Haddad, two other featured speakers at the event were Thomas Sankey, who serves as senior project manager and senior ecologist of the environmental consulting firm SWCA, and Melvin Spinks, president of CivilTech Engineering, Inc.
‘Amazing piece of land’
The Herons Kingwood Marina project met resistance from locals when they deemed its plan to bring in high rises, boat docks and a road expansion will alter Kingwood’s “Livable Forest” identity, cause flooding, bring more traffic and affect the environment.
The $2.5 billion project is set to settle around the Barrington community near the intersection of Kingwood and Woodland Hills drives. He also highlighted that no construction will begin prior to discovering a permanent solution to flooding in the area and receiving answers from both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city of Houston about its viability.
Prior to the start of the speeches at 7 p.m., attendees got to view the visuals of the development, which includes a 107.41-acre Marina District, a 64.45-acre Commercial District and a 136.65-acre Residential District.
A press release sent Tuesday said Romerica Group envisioned The Herons back in 2014 and planned to host a town hall prior to Hurricane Harvey.
“When I found this amazing piece of land in Kingwood, I fell in love with it,” Haddad said. “It has absolutely everything — very close to the airport, very close to the highway. It has all the infrastructure, everything is in place. It’s green. There are even eagles around some time of the year.”
In his speech, Sankey, of SWCA, informed attendees of the many acts and regulations behind developments, among them the Clean Water Act’s Section 404 Permit Program that regulates the discharge of dredged material into water bodies. Back at the February meeting between members of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 10, Councilman Dave Martin said The Herons’ developers were focusing on it.
Sankey also referenced the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and mentioned that five breeds of birds, such as the red knot and the mountain plover, have no habitats in The Herons’ proposed building site. As for the bald eagle, Sankey said a nest was found but its location was adjacent to — not on — said land.
The answer conjured much commotion from attendees in the front row.
“Other aspects, the migratory and such, that will be something that has to be taken into consideration,” he said.
Spinks offered information about sustainability and conservation, two aspects he said parties linked to The Herons are well aware of since they are “responsible builders.” He added that his firm has been assessing the findings of a traffic-impact study to minimize potential negative outcomes.
One of the planned structures at The Herons is an underground garage for 8,000-plus vehicles.
“We’re going to only impact 30 percent of the footprint of the land area,” he said. “Versus the normal residential homes, the places where they build things side-by-side, we will go more vertical and we will preserve as much as we can of ‘The Livable Forest.’”
The community speaks
The presentation then stopped on the “Community Support” slide, which said The Herons could generate $135 million in property taxes annually to fund up to $3 billion in flood-mitigation bonds and signaling the start of a lengthy Q&A session where residents could directly speak to Haddad, Sansky and Spinks.
The Romerica CEO was the main fielder of questions and receiver of comments from the people in the queue. Many residents were focused on flooding after Harvey damaged or claimed their homes.
Although Candace Demarque, attending the event with her daughter Melissa, commended the designs, she questioned whether Haddad knows the project’s target audience — especially businesses — and observed that where The Herons is right now would make customers’ access to these services difficult.
“You could go through with the permitting, go through with getting the deed restrictions lifted, you could build the land and you’re gonna flood my home again,” she said. “That’s as far as it will go, and there will be no business that’ll actually be located in this beautiful place. There are other locations better for this development.”
Familiar faces from the Jan. 15 community meeting like Reduce Flooding website’s Bob Rehak, Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative Vice-Chair Bill Fowler and resident Barbara Hillburn also got to hold the microphone at one point.
Those who didn’t attend the Q&A session could still submit their questions or comments via an email to questions@TheHeronsKingwood.com.
Rehak appreciated the developer and the experts for coming to meet the residents. That said, he believes The Herons will have trouble getting around the deed restrictions.
“I was disappointed that they didn’t hold the meeting before March 1, the deadline for the public comment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Fowler, who attended the event with co-chair Dianne Lansden. “But I was encouraged to hear that they do have a general understanding of the sedimentation problem in the West Fork of the San Jacinto River as well as Lake Houston.”
Moreover, Fowler said he was pleased at Romerica’s pledge to not perform any construction before solutions to said issue are found.
At one point during the Q&A, those opposing The Herons development were asked to stand. Karim Belaziz was one of the few who remain seated.
The Barrington resident of two years — although he noted that he was flooded six months into his stay — said that he actually took no stance on The Herons since the project remained inactive and there is still not enough information.
“We have seen the project — it’s nice,” Belaziz said, citing that The Herons would bring services of Houston’s Galleria level much closer to home. “But I’m 90 to 95 percent that it won’t happen now.”
Even when much of the venue had been emptied, Haddad, Sansky and Spinks still stayed behind. Haddad noted that all of the concerns were valid.
“We will do what is necessary to do it in a way that people will feel less affected,” he said.
Councilman Dave Martin, who was aware of the concerns surrounding The Herons and also its potential, was not at this gathering. However, he will host a Capital Improvement Project town hall, with Major Sylvester Turner as one of the speakers, 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kingwood Community Center.