Looking back at 2017, it is apparent that it was quite a busy news year.
The weather and sports played a big part in our lives last year, as did politics. Without a doubt, Hurricane Harvey and the floods it brought are clearly the top story of the year. Because of that, there is no need to print a Top 10 Stories of 2017 list in reverse order to build anticipation over what was the biggest newsmaker of 2017. Therefore, we are going to list Fort Bend County’s biggest news stories for 2017 in order. Without further ado, they are:
- Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast near Corpus Christi on the evening of Friday, Aug. 25, as a Category 4 hurricane. It slowly meandered to the northeast, dumping as much as 50 inches of rain on the Greater Houston Area over the next several days, causing widespread flooding. Missouri City and Sienna Plantation were the hardest-hit areas of eastern Fort Bend County with tornadoes and floodwaters.
The Brazos River crested at a record height of 55.18 feet, causing additional flooding in parts of Fort Bend County. The storm caused the Sugar Land Skeeters baseball team to move a home series to a road game, as the stadium was converted into a makeshift shelter for people and pets.
- Willowridge High School mold problem
In June, work was being done to renovate and remodel parts of Willowridge High School. Power was cut off for a few days due to the nature of the work being done. When workers returned, they found that mold had rapidly spread throughout most of the building.
That forced the closure of the school and the relocation of the students and staff to Marshall High School. The mold remediation was estimated cost about $7.5 million and is being paid for out of the district’s contingency fund.
“Every single ceiling tile in that whole building is coming out of the building and is going to be replaced with new ceiling tiles,” Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupree said. “All the air conditioning ducts, all the pipes for the air conditioning are being removed and replaced with brand new ducts. Everywhere there’s carpet in the building, the carpet is being removed and we’re putting brand new tile. The entire building is being painted inside with fresh, new Willowridge Eagle colors, and we are also replacing every bit of furniture in the building.”
The building is scheduled to re-open when students return from the holiday break on Jan. 8.
- Sugar Land annexation
Sugar Land grew by more than 30 percent on Dec. 12 with the annexations of the New Territory and Greatwood Municipal Utility Districts, increasing the population from 87,367 to 117,869 residents.
In 2016, the city council unanimously approved the annexations of both areas. The city’s 2017 fiscal year budget was also amended to begin the pre-annexation work to provide the areas with city services. Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said the annexations have been part of Sugar Land’s planning for the past 10 years. He added that city officials worked with elected representatives of both MUDs and homeowner’s associations to negotiate Strategic Partnership Agreements (SPAs), which outlined each party’s various responsibilities and timing for the future annexations.
New Territory and Greatwood will be temporarily placed within City Council District Two and City Council District Four, respectively. The newly annexed areas will be able to participate in the mayoral and at-large elections in May of 2018.
- Smart Financial Centre opens
Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, the city’s new $84 million performing arts venue, made its long-anticipated debut in January. Located near the intersection of University Boulevard and the Southwest Freeway, the facility welcomed comedian Jerry Seinfeld as its inaugural performer on Jan. 14, followed the next day with a concert by Don Henley.
Designed for flexibility, the 200,000-square-foot venue incorporates innovative moveable walls that can expand and contract to create four different seating capacities that range from an intimate setting of 3,400 seats to a maximum of 6,400. It also features 14 luxury suites, corporate hospitality areas, and the latest sound, light and video technology. Other offerings include space to house up to 14 production trucks and buses, as well as 2,500 guest parking spaces. In May, the city dedicated a new plaza outside the facility.
- Skeeters hire new manager to replace Gaetti
Pete Incaviglia, a left fielder who played 12 years in the Major Leagues with six different teams – including two stints with the Houston Astros – was named the second skipper in Sugar Land Skeeters history ion November.
“The Skeeters are one of the best organizations in independent baseball. I’m very honored and privileged to be their second manager,” Incaviglia said.
He replaced Gary Gaetti, who was hired as the club’s inaugural skipper in 2011 and managed the club for six seasons (2012-2016). Gaetti left the Skeeters in October after concluding a 67-73 season. In his six years as manager, Gaetti compiled a 450-391 (.535) regular season record. The 2013 campaign was a record-breaking year with a 95-45 overall record. Gaetti was named the Atlantic League Manager of the Year in just his second season.
Under his leadership, the team reached the league playoffs in three of six seasons, including two Championship Series appearances (2014, 2016), winning it all in 2016.
Incaviglia was an Oklahoma State University standout who was the eighth overall pick in the 1985 amateur draft by the Montreal Expos. Incaviglia refused to play in the Expos minor league system, so he was traded to the Rangers. He never played in the minors.
“I am going to put together a team that you and the community and the organization will be proud of and we will play the game the right way. I’m a little bit old school,” he said.
- Sugar Land passes cell phone law; state overturns it
Hang up and drive! In a 5-2 vote, the Sugar Land City Council acted last March to prohibit the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle.
On Sept. 1, however, the state Legislature enacted a law nullifying the city’s cell phone ban.
The new law says only the state can place limits on the use of handheld wireless communications devices while behind the wheel. The bill ended existing ordinances prohibiting use of a cell phone without a hands-free accessory in more than 40 Texas cities, including Sugar Land. State law already bans cell phone use in school zones and for drivers younger than 18. The statewide ban on texting and driving went into effect on Sept. 1.
The city’s ordinance required that portable electronic devices can only be used in hands-free mode or if a call is being made because there is an emergency. Devices can include mobile phones, personal digital assistants, MP3s, handheld music players, electronic reading devices, laptop computers, pagers, electronic game device or portable computing device.
- Red light camera lawsuit fails
Helwig F. Van Der Grinten filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Sugar Land in January, claiming the city’s mayor, police chief and city manager are illegally using the red light cameras around the city to supplement the city budget. In August, the 434th District Court of Fort Bend County dismissed his case, basically saying you can’t sue the city. Van Der Grinten said that doesn’t put a stop to what he calls his pursuit of red light traffic camera justice.
Van Der Grinten’s lawyer, Scott Stewart, filed a class action suit in January against the City of Sugar Land, claiming it is wrong to collect fines from motorists based on evidence from red light cameras at intersections, in part, because the city never conducted the required engineering studies to justify the cameras. Van Der Grinten and others filed suit naming the City of Sugar Land, Mayor Joe R. Zimmerman, Sugar Land Police Chief Doug Brinkley and City Manager Allen Bogard as defendants.
In a July 24 hearing, presiding District Court Judge James Shoemake dismissed the case stating, “the plaintiffs have failed to allege facts sufficient to overcome defendants’ defenses of governmental and official immunity,” according to court documents.
“The city has deemed itself to be above accountability and unfortunately the court agrees. But we’ve got a good case and expect Sugar Land to fight it every step of the way. We will appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court,” Van Der Grinten said.
- Missouri City animal shelter problems
Did Missouri City officials retaliate against volunteers in the Municipal Volunteer Program who publicly aired their animal shelter concerns and encouraged residents to question the city? The question, which has been brewing in print and social media and led to protestors packing the second floor of City Hall, came to a head during a City Council meeting in December.
Volunteers claim that once they publicly challenged city officials for underfunding the shelter and encouraged the public to complain in letters and emails to the council, they were locked out of the facility and denied the ability to photograph the animals for online marketing purposes.
At the meeting, City Manager Anthony Snipes and Mayor Allen Owen made a point to speak before public comments to say they appreciated and applauded the work of the volunteers but changes were already planned.
One of those changes is a review of procedures and processes related to drugs and medicines, Snipes said. The city is also bringing in the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and requested an investigator be assigned to conduct a review of policies and procedures at the shelter. He also asked the IT department to use software to track animals in the shelter, document their welfare and medical requirements, publicize adoptable animals online, manage staff tasks and deal with complaints and licensing.
“This is a very serious matter and my team is thoroughly reviewing Animal Services Operations and Municipal Volunteer Program policies at this time,” Snipes said.
- F-Trump woman clashes with sheriff
Sheriff Troy Nehls made national news recently after he was blasted for using his Facebook page to find the identity of a Fort Bend County resident who plastered an obscenity against President Donald Trump and anyone who voted for him on the back of the family truck.
That post resulted in publicly identifying Karen Cook Fonseca, which led to her arrest on an outstanding felony warrant for fraud. It has Fonseca’s supporters crying foul and claiming this was just a publicity stunt by the sheriff to get national attention and help for his potential bid for Congress. (Nehls later declined to run.)
It all started Nov. 15 when Nehls said someone sent him a picture of the back window of the truck where the obscene message was placed and he posted it on his Facebook page asking the owner to come forward for a talk.
“The picture didn’t show the license plate. So I put it out on my Facebook and said we’d like to identify and talk to her about people who are offended,” Nehls said. “Would you consider modifying it and have a conversation. We reached out to the district attorney’s office to the individual who oversees all traffic matters. They said they would consider a disorderly conduct charge. Then the media said I threatened her with arrest and I’m harassing her.”
Fonseca said she was growing weary of the new president.
“I know f— Trump is a bold statement to say how you feel. You can say, ‘we don’t like Trump or impeach Trump.’ Everyone says that. But when you’re mad you say ‘f— Trump and f— you for messing up our world,” Fonseca said.
- Super Bowl and World Series fever
Even though the Houston Texans didn’t make it to Super Bowl LI, it didn’t stop the city from going crazy for the game between the champion New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. Houston hosted the Super Bowl and reveled in two weeks of hype and fun with events and activities across the region. The Patriots trailed 28-3 in the third quarter but came back to win in overtime 24-28. Missouri City and Sugar Land hosted parties and Constellation Field, where the Sugar Land Skeeters had won the Atlantic League title just a few months earlier, served as a staging area for trucks serving the big game.
Flash forward to October, and a city beleaguered by Hurricane Harvey celebrated in a big way as the Houston Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh game of the World Series to bring home the team’s first world championship.