MUDs Provide More Than Water and Sewer
By Crystal Simmons
A 12-mile long hike and bike trail. A dreamy garden on the water. Fruit trees, wildflowers, and butterfly gardens. These aren’t your typical municipal utility district (MUD) amenities.
Originally established by the state to provide water and sewer infrastructure, MUDs now pay for everything from recreational amenities and parks to trash pickup and security. They pay for these services using the tax revenue from residents within their district. They typically serve residents of unincorporated areas who do not receive city services.
MUDs started to expand their offerings in 2004, when Texas passed a law allowing them to sell park bonds. A flurry of development ensued, giving rise to more neighborhood parks and trails across the state. Many MUDs now partner with government agencies like Harris County Precinct 4 and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) to pay for such large-scale public projects as connected trail systems, bridges, and community centers.
Although Harris County Precinct 4 features many active MUDs, the ones below stand out for their large-scale public projects, greenspace conservation, and sustainable practices.
Like many developments in the 1970s, the original sections of the Timber Lane subdivisions opened with limited amenities. As the area grew and lost greenspace, members of the Timber Lane Utility District board saw a need to preserve the surrounding forests.
To pay for the district’s first park, Alfred “Bud” Gessel, the Timber Lane Utility District’s director and general manager, won a TPWD grant to build the 12.4-acre Timber Lane Park in 1994. The area served the community for nearly a decade before population growth and a need for more greenspace spurred the board to consider adding its next park.
Faced with limited revenue, Gessel used donated materials and enlisted 900 volunteers to build the Spring Community Playground at Liberty Park over five days in 2003.
Things got easier the next year, with the state’s decision to allow the sale of park bonds by MUDs.
“Developers were buying up all the property, so we knew we had to act fast,” Gessel says. “We started planning our trail and park master plan in 2004-2005.”
Over the next decade, the extra bond revenue provided a means for board members to turn their master plan into a reality. Using a combination of savings, donations, bond money, and grants, they built new trails and opened three new parks in rapid succession, including Sandpiper Park in 2010, Herman Little Park in 2012, and Cypress Creek Park at Timber Lane in 2013.
The Timber Lane development now spans 325 acres, with five parks, six lakes, restrooms, parking, a community center, and a bridge across Cypress Creek connecting the community to the 400-acre Mercer Botanic Gardens. Together, the area includes 6 miles of paved trails across nine trailheads and roughly 12 miles of mountain bike trails through dense pine forests.
The district is now working with Harris County Precinct 4 to connect trails on the east side of the Hardy Toll Road to Herman Little Park on the west side. When complete, visitors can travel from Mercer Botanic Gardens and Timber Lane Park to Herman Little Park.
The trail segments are part of the Cypress Creek Hike & Bike Trail and will one day be part of the Cypress Creek Greenway, a planned 40-mile trail system from west of U.S. 290 to Spring Creek.
“One of the bigger projects we did was a transportation improvement project with the Texas Department of Transportation and Harris County Precinct 4 to build a bridge,” says Gessel. “It connects into multiple subdivisions. Some are in the district, and some aren’t.”
The bridge cost $5 million and took nine years to fund, design, and complete.
The Timber Lane Community Center, another large-scale project, opened in 2020. It seats 210 and features public and private programs, including birding lessons and volunteer training hosted by Mercer Botanic Gardens staff.
Mandolin Gardens, an 11-acre, award-winning park in bustling northwest Harris County, features landscaped upper and lower trails surrounded by water. It was designed by Talley Landscape Architects in 2010 and opened in 2011, with roses, native grasses, natural areas, and mature trees lining the park’s walkways, and a decorative crosswalk greeting visitors. Fountains, rock-lined babbling brooks, and art make the site popular with photographers and a scenic escape close to home.
Merrie Talley of Talley Landscape Architects says the park’s appeal stems from its serene landscape, lush vegetation, and abundant water features. Unlike traditionally maintained landscapes, Mandolin Gardens does not release harmful runoff into Harris County’s creeks and water systems. The park is entirely organic, meaning landscapers do not use glyphosate, synthetic or chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides.
Based on several studies of the park’s vegetation, Talley believes these organic gardening practices may have boosted plant growth and contributed to healthier conditions for people and pets.
“The Texas Forest Service began measuring and comparing the tree growth of this organic garden to that in a number of traditional landscapes,” says Talley. “Several years in, they predicted that in 10 years, these trees would reach mature sizes equivalent to 20 years of a traditional, chemically maintained park.”
Before becoming Mandolin Gardens, the area was a weedy lot used for stormwater detention. Talley says MUD 230 board members approached her firm in 2007 about transforming a string of detention basins into community parks connected by trails.
“They were one of the first districts to use park bond funds,” says Talley.
Since 2011, MUD 230 has developed four dual-use parks around detention ditches and basins, with almost 4 miles of trails. Improvements at Mandolin Gardens Park also boosted the basin’s stormwater capacity by approximately 13%, giving the area additional flood protection during hurricanes and rainstorms.
Plans include creating a loop connecting MUD 230 parks and trails with Precinct 4’s Matzke Park and the 100 Acre Woods Preserve, which will give residents and visitors access to the future 40-mile Cypress Creek Greenway. The board also plans to add a new parking lot near Mandolin Gardens.
Terranova West MUD
The communities of the Terranova West MUD feature eye-catching tree-lined streets, wildflower gardens, and landscaped areas. The district also maintains an 8-acre park, three detention ponds with trails, and several greenspaces with fruit trees and natural areas.
“When Terranova West and other surrounding communities were built, developers gave little thought to green spaces,” says Tom Lovell, the district’s board president. “The original Terranova West developer provided a clubhouse, pool, and a small attached park, with tennis and basketball courts and a few playground equipment pieces.”
To protect the area from commercial development, the board purchased 8 acres along Cypresswood Drive and built a park featuring a crushed granite trail, a ball field, a volleyball court, a soccer field, and 13 exercise stations.
“The (Terranova West) park opened in 2008 and was never viewed by the board as finished,” says Lovell. “It has always been a work in progress.”
Since then, the board has added trees, shrubs, trail lighting, upgraded exercise stations, and park benches. Scouts also built a veterans monument, and Harris County Precinct 4 donated a sapling grown from a historical tree featured in the Texas AgriLife Extension Service’s Famous Trees of Texas.
As the community grew, the board added trails to three detention basins and planted vegetation for interest. Like the park, the detention basins are a work in progress, with new trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and amenities added each year.
For the past several years, the Terranova West community has grown wildflowers in several areas to reduce landscaping costs, attract pollinators, and provide wildlife habitat.
Board members also carefully select trees and vegetation to plant throughout the district to maximize diversity and provide food sources for wildlife. They are now working to build a reclaimed water line to reduce irrigation costs and conserve water.
“As a smaller district, creative ways are employed to do our annual landscape and amenity enhancements,” says Lovell. “The planning and tree selection is done by board members instead of hiring a landscape architect to save costs and because board members are more attuned to what our residents want.”