By Betty L. Martin
HOUSTON, (PNA/Xinhua) — Less than a century ago, what is Sugar Land, now listed as one of the best and safest cities to live in the United States, was mostly large stretches of rural land — dirt or gravel roads with few farms and even fewer businesses dotting the countryside.
The transformation of that rustic Texas landscape into today’s high-growth, upscale model of metropolitan residential and commercial development is the carefully calculated result of both short and long-range developmental planning, say Sugar Land residents and officials.
Chuck Kelly, assistant archivist with the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, recalls growing up in Sugar Land at a time when there was almost nothing but undeveloped land between the borders of Sugar Land and nearby Houston, the country’s fourth largest city. That was at least two decades before the area’s development boom began in the 1980s, he said.
“I remember the town in the 1960s when there was one grocery store, one hardware store and one theater that everybody in town could walk to,” said Kelly, 63. “Everybody knew everybody. If you didn’t like being close to people, you didn’t stay in Sugar Land very long.”
Kelly, whose father was born in Sugar Land, said the town began as a one-company town created by Imperial Sugar manufacturing shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The sugar giant built homes and schools for its workers, he said, and so was one of the first “master planned” towns in the state of Texas.
“In 1908, Sugar Land became a company town and the general manager wanted workers who were happy, productive and would stay here,” Kelly said. “The employer owned the houses and stores and ran the town.”
Douglas Schomburg, Sugar Land’s director of Planning and Code Services, said Sugar Land was fortunate to have the company-town-style planning approach that came from the Imperial Sugar Company long before the City of Sugar Land was actually incorporated.
“As a company town, there were houses and neighborhoods built for the workers, a school and general store,” Schomburg said.” Once incorporated in 1959, the city continued to experience strong growth, and throughout each subsequent decade, multiple master- planned neighborhoods and communities were developed in the city, as well as adjacent to the city limits.”
The town’s first subdivisions were launched in the 1940s and in 1970s, the city management, incorporated in 1959, opened the area to new outside development, Kelly said.
According to the city of Sugar Land’s 2012 Annual Report, the city has grown to an area of 91 square kilometers populated by 84,511 people who live in 25,128 single-family and 2,019 multi-family homes and have a median household income of US$ 102,270 per year. The city boasts 11 “Fortune 500″ firms, and has its own minor league baseball team.
Schomburg attributes Sugar Land’s success to municipal zoning, a set of city-created regulations that determine nearly everything about how the city is developed. These regulations range from general designations of each area of the city as commercial, residential, industrial or mixed-use to specific codes detailing, for example, how far a building must be set back from a roadway, sidewalk or from a neighboring structure.
“Sugar Land has had municipal zoning regulations since the 1960s, which has helped shape growth and land use patterns. The City leadership through the City Council (local government) over the years has valued good planning principles and reinforced the need for strong city codes and infrastructure,” Schomburg said.
City leaders also strongly value citizen boards with particular focus on the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendations to City Council that include land-use plans, master community plans, and zoning cases.
“The city utilizes individual master plans and additional master plans on topics such as parks and recreation, water drainage, waste water, pedestrian and bike travel and municipal facilities,” Schomburg said. “The city has worked diligently to implement the master plans, as well as keep the plans updated as changes occur.”
The city has also been willing to commit resources to develop a strong planning focus currently found in both its Planning and Code Services Department and Transportation and Long Range Planning Department.
“This two-fold approach allows resources to be focused on both the current development and code-related issues, as well as long- term planning and transportation needs,” said Schomburg, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 1999. “Multiple city departments carry out key planning roles to support the master plans.”
Careful annexation planning resulted in bringing areas in with public support rather than controversy, he said, and the city began a series of comprehensive plans after its incorporation.
If Sugar Land’s planners were to offer a single piece of advice to other former rural areas developing quickly into urban landscapes, Schomburg said, it would be zoning.
“One of the challenges facing former rural areas is that there is often difficulty in preparing adequately for growth in population, and there is stress on the public infrastructure with streets and utilities being the most common issues. Zoning for land use control is one typical local tool that local cities can adopt, and since zoning is not a federal or state program, it can be customized specifically for a local community’s values and goals,” Schomburg said.
Zoning must include subdivision controls for adequate health and safety provisions for street access. Public utilities of water, waste water, and drainage are also very important, he said.
“Even without a big tax base, Sugar Land got a good start,” Kelly said. “It was well managed with good oversight.”