A Shining City on a Hill
By Mike McGrath
Most cities have a founders’ story, a narrative—real or imagined—that explains its existence or in some cases location. Rome, Italy, for instance, was said to have been built by twin brothers who were raised by wolves. Taylor Landing, Texas (population 228, elevation 18 feet), has one to rival them all. It was founded in order to rebuild an aging sewage treatment plant.
Which would be little more than a cute story had not Mother Nature intervened. Five days after the vote to incorporate, Taylor Landing was hit with three major hurricanes within a period of three years.
The beleaguered community began as a resort/real estate investment near a golf course in the Cajun country of southeast Texas, five miles from Spindletop, the site of the original Texas oil boom. This is the heart of the Texas Oil Patch and also the home of two of the largest bird sanctuaries in the country.
Situated on an uplift of sandy loam surrounded by marshland, the homeowners are unable to use septic system, the usual option for small, rural communities without access to municipal services. The composition of the soil—tidal mudflats, really—would not have allowed it.
Counties don’t do sewers in Texas. It’s not part of their job description, and the neighboring city of Port Arthur was unwilling to annex them. (The tax base would not be nearly large enough to offset the cost of providing municipal services.)
So the homeowners were left with three possibilities: create a private company to provide sewer services, form a special utilities district or incorporate as a municipality. “It was almost impossible to take an existing community and get it into a private water company,” explains Mayor John Durkay. “Someone would have to own it, which automatically created conflicts of interests between the homeowners, and the amount of labor, volunteer time and government intervention to incorporate was almost the same as creating a special district.”
So the residents voted to incorporate, just eking by the minimum threshold of 200 residents as required by state law. Duly incorporated, the city began the process of filing the paperwork for the financing and licensing of a new sewage treatment plant.
The city government consists of a mayor, two commissioners, a city clerk, a public health officer, a hospitality chair, an animal control officer and a public works director—all volunteers except for the city clerk who is reimbursed for costs. Meetings of the city commission are held in the garage of Dan Newton, the public works director.
The vote for incorporation took place on September 19, 2005. On September 24, Hurricane Rita blew in. “Rita was a Category 3 that cost an estimated $10 billion in Jefferson County,” says Durkay. “It was a huge storm.” In 2007, the eye of Hurricane Humberto went directly over Taylor Landing. A year later, Hurricane Ike created one of the highest storm surges in Gulf Coast history.
The fledgling city’s lofty elevation of 18 feet protected its houses from flooding, but the new sewage treatment plant, still under construction, was not so lucky. To complicate matters, the Army Corps of Engineer’s office in Galveston was destroyed by Ike while it was reviewing Taylor Landing’s sewer project. The tiny community had to apply for a FEMA loan to rebuild the damaged sewer lines and to do it in compliance with a new set of greener standards than originally encountered.
Another complication of the hurricanes—being a city meant complying with the more rigorous emergency planning rules that were implemented after the disaster of Katrina. An unpaid city government consisting of a handful of people meeting in the garage of the city’s volunteer public works director was expected to meet emergency planning standards no less rigorous than the megalopolis of Houston, Texas.
Ever resourceful, the community was able to evacuate its residents, account for them on return, protect their property, distribute fuel, water and food and provide area responders with appropriate reporting and incident management information. After providing FEMA with all necessary reports, and hazard mitigation and reconstruction plans, Taylor Landing was informed that it has passed muster with flying colors.
The new sewage plant is expected to come on line in the next month or so, representing a moral victory for the community.
City meetings, however, are still being conducted in Dan Newton’s garage.
Taylor Landing is one of 26 finalists in the 2011 All-America City Awards, which will be held June 15-17 in Kansas City, Missouri. It is the smallest of the finalists this year and possibly one of the smallest in the 62-year-old awards program.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.