Texas counties generally take the lead in governing unincorporated areas within their borders. But the limits of county authority — and a lack of clarity over what counties can do — can be frustrating to residents.
That was the case for Sid Hudson. He recently bought a newly built house in an unincorporated area south of McKinney. Hudson heard that another developer, Huffines Communities, would eventually start clearing the land next to his neighborhood to build even more homes.
Over the summer, “We just slowly watched the pile of trees get larger and larger and larger,” Hudson said.
Then in August, Huffines Communities started burning the tree pile. Hudson said the smoke and ash drifted onto his property, which was up a small embankment. After the first week of burning, he noticed the pile was just a bit smaller. He started to worry.
“Burning for weeks on end to get rid of it was going to bring smoke and debris and ash across this whole neighborhood for whatever amount of time that took,” he said.
One of Howard’s neighbors, Abhijit Basu, was concerned about health risks to people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Basu had already asked the project manager not to burn the tree pile, to no avail. He didn’t stop there, though. Basu alerted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and told it to expect a call from him when the burning began.
And call he did, soon after the burning started the morning of August 23. A TCEQ investigator came out hours later, but Basu said that by then, the pollution had decreased.
“So the actual particulate matter was reduced,” he said.
The TCEQ investigator captured an air quality reading just a few points within the acceptable range for federal air quality standards.
According to a copy of the state’s investigation obtained through a public records request, TCEQ told the onsite engineer a violation “would be cited for failure to prevent the discharge of ash and smoke from outdoor burning at the site in such concentrations and of such duration as to interfere with the normal enjoyment and use of property.” The narrative of the investigation said it would be classified as a “moderate” violation of state code.
Huffines Communities eventually chipped and hauled away the wood.
The company’s owner, Don Huffines, is currently running for governor of Texas. Representatives from the Huffines Communities didn’t respond to calls and emails requesting an interview. The Huffines campaign also didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Basu and Howard said the problem isn’t just that the developer didn’t protect their air quality. It’s also that regulations only kick in after the air is polluted.
In an email, a TCEQ spokeswoman told KERA the state doesn’t have to approve outdoor burning like this ahead of time. She also noted, though, that the law “does not exempt or excuse any person responsible for the consequences, damages, or injuries resulting from the burning.”
It’s unclear what those consequences might be. TCEQ said no one was available for an interview for this story.
Cities can ban outdoor burning or issue permits. But as Texas grows, who is responsible for these kinds of problems in unincorporated areas?
If you ask Dallas County officials, they say it’s their job. Dallas County issues permits for burning in unincorporated areas and inspects a site ahead of time.
“We got to see the direction of where they’re gonna be burning,” said Dallas County Fire Marshall Robert De Los Santos. “If it’s heavily congested with homes, we’re not going to issue the burn permit.”
On the flip side, Collin County’s fire marshal told KERA the county can’t do permits because state law doesn’t explicitly give them that power.
“There was no statutory authority to issue burn permits,” said Fire MarshallJason Browning. “We’re not given that authority as cities are.”
Basu, Hudson and other neighbors at least want Collin County to pass a resolution with strong language emphasizing burn rules must be followed.
In emails with Basu obtained by KERA, County Judge Chris Hill told him if he wanted change, Basu would need to contact his state legislators.
Browning also said this kind of complaint is unusual, despite land clearing and development happening across Collin County.
“I haven’t received any complaints other than this one in the past many months,” he said.
Sid Hudson thinks this was all avoidable; Huffines Communities could have bought a trench burner, which tamps down smoke and ash as waste burns.
The land being cleared was for expanding a master planned community called Inspiration, with home prices “from the $300s – $800s,” according to the community’s website.
Hudson said, by comparison, buying a trench burner would be a drop in the bucket.
“For $60,000, they could be a good neighbor,” he stated.
According to the TCEQ investigation, the on-site engineer for the developer said a trench burner wasn’t considered. He also said the alternatives that were considered were deemed “economically infeasible.”
State rules say economic feasibility is a valid reason for rejecting an alternative to outdoor burning.
As Collin County grows and becomes more dense, this kind of conflict may pop up more, and residents may clamor for more action from the county or the state. But will the bulk of people in Collin County want tighter regulation in the form of laws, regulations and permits?
That’s a burning question.