EDINBURG, RGV – La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE) brought early holiday cheer – and a request – to the members of the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 in the form of song.
Donning Santa hats and singing to the tune of “Feliz Navidad,” the activists made know their desire for updated Model Subdivision Rules (MSRs) with the reworked lyrics “yo lo que quiero de Navidad es que pase los MSRs.”
The request comes after two years of working with county officials to put revised MSRs on the books. Hidalgo County instituted MSRs in 2007, and officials have been slow but receptive to the groups’ call for their amendment. However, as 2017 comes to a close and candidates prepare for the 2018 primaries, the organizers say their only Christmas wish is for county officials to formerly adopt them.
“We really don’t want these rules to be just words. We want them to be official … and be the new norms where the new developments are going to operate,” said LUPE Community Organizing Coordinator Martha Sanchez. “That’s really what we want. We want as much security as possible for the people who live in colonias. We don’t want them to be just floating in the air.”
The Texas Water Development Board developed MSRs to abate the proliferation of colonias along the border. With MSRs in place, the county sets guidelines for developers to follow, specifically in providing infrastructure to ensure perspective residents have adequate water, sewerage and other utility services.
Since starting a dialogue with LUPE and ARISE, the county has launched a pilot program to install streetlights in colonias and upgraded MSR drafts to include drainage planning that meets a 25-year storm standard. This means constructing drainage systems able to handle a major storm that is likely to occur in a 25-year period (a four percent chance of occurring in a year). Activists do not want these hard-earned gains to be discarded.
“We already have stronger MSR rules. You’re already doing the 25-year standard. You’re already doing the lights. But, it’s not official until it’s official, right?” said Sanchez to the board. “And, we never know when new people come into the court whether they’re going to continue to support what you’ve been supporting. So, we’d really like to encourage you that, before the year ends, that you push things through.”
Flooding is one perpetual problem the updated MSRs hope to address. Many communities in the Rio Grande Valley sit in designated floodplain areas, and a growing population is straining the existing infrastructure, making the situation all the more urgent. Last year, colonia residents sued the county and the drainage district for flood damage to their properties, claiming officials failed to make improvements in a timely manner and continued to approve developments without ensuring proper drainage was in place. Josué Ramírez, Lower Rio Grande Valley co-director for Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said this is reason the county needs tighter MSRs now.
“That’s what we’re trying to prevent with these rules, … to make sure that new subdivisions don’t repeat the problems of the previous subdivisions and that we learn from our mistakes and that we make these regulations a little bit stronger so that they’re safer,” said Ramírez.
For those who might say the regulations will raise property values and cost more for developers and residents, the community organizers agree. But, they argue it will be less expensive than continuing to handle issues reactively.
“Increasing standards for these subdivisions is going to increase the cost for the subdivisions, and I think the community is very aware of that,” said Ramírez. “I think that they would rather pay upfront than pay two, three, four years down the line where they have a home built and their community floods, when they have a home and a family and a subdivision and now the light goes out and there’s no more service because the developer isn’t paying for it. And, so I think that that argument that a lot of people point forward … is really flawed in the sense that people end up paying for this either way, and the latter is probably the worst because it comes with a traumatic experience of losing property, of losing your living space.”
Sanchez says that above all, organizers want residents to feel like they are part of the larger community, not separate from it.
“That’s the No. 1 issue for us is that the people feel more dignified. Because we know that they have dignity, but sometimes [in] the areas where they work, they don’t feel that dignity and that respect that they deserve from our society,” said Sanchez. “ … When we strengthen the rules … then the people in the colonias live with more dignity.”
After the drainage district meeting, Hidalgo County Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantu said that LUPE and ARISE just might get their wish.
“We’ve had several meetings. We’ve talked with them. We’ve had a workshop. I don’t think that it’s being delayed or anything like that,” said Cantu. “I think that it’s just [that] they’re very serious, that once we implement them, it’s hard to go back on them. So, we’re making sure that everything makes sense, and more than likely we’re going to approve if not all of them, most of them. But, my understanding [is] it’s probably going to be all of them.”