Bill proposes additional regulations for college land purchases

Mikaela Cannizzo

Texas public universities and colleges seeking to purchase land outside of areas surrounding their main campuses could face stricter requirements before proceeding.

House Bill 1737 would require college governing boards to receive additional approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board prior to expanding their presence in other locations. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said she filed the bill to prevent situations such as the UT System’s recent land purchase in Houston.

“When UT purchased the land in Houston, had this bill been in place, that wouldn’t have been able to occur,” Alvarado said.

The UT System planned to purchase more than 300 acres of land in Houston and closed on a 100.27-acre property on Jan. 15, according to the System’s website. Last Wednesday, UT System Chancellor William McRaven announced in a press release that the University would no longer pursue building in Houston. 

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, UT System executive director of media relations and external communications, said the Board of Regents typically purchases land to expand existing campuses. However, she said the land in Houston was not intended to be a space to build a new campus, but rather was set up as a blank canvas for potential research, innovation and industry collaboration.

“The purchase of the Houston property was an anomaly and presented a unique opportunity,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “It was the opportunity to have a presence in the largest city in the state.”

The Board, composed of nine appointed members as the governing body for the UT System, approved the Houston expansion initiative on Nov. 4, 2015. LaCoste-Caputo said the System did not consult with the Texas HECB prior to purchasing the land because there is no current requirement to do so.

The Board, created by the Texas Legislature in 1965, oversees higher education and coordinates initiatives between schools to maximize use of resources in the state. 

Alvarado said she opposed UT’s expansion to Houston because of the land’s large size and close proximity to the University of Houston. Alvarado said she believes the HECB’s involvement could ensure a more thorough examination process in the future that would align with the state’s goal of fairly distributing resources to enhance higher education.

 The bill states universities would only need additional approval from the HECB if they intend to purchase land outside of a designated region in geographical proximity to an institution in which most students, faculty and staff reside.

Mike Rosen, UH System executive director of media relations, said the System is supportive of an increase in the coordinating board’s role in land purchasing decisions.

Tilman Fertitta, UH System Board of Regents chairman, said the university is pleased UT withdrew plans to expand to Houston in a statement released Wednesday.

 “This was a group effort by elected leaders, our Board of Regents, our administration and supporters to stand our ground against an unnecessary duplication of resources that didn’t align with the state’s plan for higher education,” Fertitta said in the statement.

 Alvarado filed the bill on Feb. 9, but it has not received any further action. If the bill becomes law, the new regulations for land purchases will go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.