The Ordered Chaos of Zoneless Katy, TX


“Firethorne, Katy, TX”

In Rockingham, Vermont, Howler editor Lia Clark is part of our town planning commission, which oversees the zoning regulations and tries to improve the condition of our residential areas as well as control the location of new developments.  Our planning commission helps keep Rockingham’s quintessential Vermont feel, with plans to further improve the area by converting apartments into single-family homes. Over spring break, I experienced an entirely different world in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, one without strict zoning regulations that amounted to an entirely different lifestyle for the residents; one that’s chaotic, but certainly not miserable.  

The Katy Mills (Crappy Outlet Mall Apparently) with nearly 7500 surrounding parking spaces.

To understand the effects of unstructured residential life, let’s focus on a single residential complex in Katy: Firethorne, a private housing development where my relatives happen to live.  Firethorne, like every other housing development in Katy, resulted from a large land purchase as part of a rising demand for housing in an expanding Houston metro area. Katy, situated near I-10, is in the ideal location for commuting to any workplace in greater Houston, and as the city of Houston has grown, so has its population- and public schools.  In 1934, the Katy Independent school district had only 263 students, but today it serves nearly 80,000. Firethorne itself has grown at a similar rate, with 54,000 residents living in a 1400 acre residential area, with the majority of homes being built in the last two decades. Since Firethorne is large enough to be its own town, it has its own dedicated commercial reserve and park with a community pool (but many residents have a private pool anyway).  Essentially, within a private residential community every acre is allocated by the developers. Elementary schools are let into the private space, and strip clubs are kept out, keeping the home values up and communities safe (which is how elementary schools are separated from strip clubs in a free market system). Outside of the residential communities is where life gets hectic in an unstructured zoning system. While we were driving to my cousin’s massive Future Farmers of America complex in the nearby countryside, I came across a truck dump next to an upscale storefront.  With such rapid growth and no regulations to set the truck dumps apart from residential life, the free market occasionally produces eyesores. The upside though is that developers will purchase large amounts of land and invest in storefronts on their own to meet the demands of the consumers in the area; the speed and efficiency of which would not have been possible in a local government-planned settlement.

Katy has certainly developed into a “quintessential” suburb, but is it a culprit of the de-facto racial segregation that plagues much of suburban America?  Surprisingly, not really. While homes tend to be grouped into neighborhoods of similar values, residential developments offer a variety of home values, allowing a wide variety of incomes, backgrounds, and nationalities to share community spaces.  Additionally, the Katy ISD school district encompasses a wide range of residential developments, leading to 50% minority enrollment in the nearby public schools. Katy High School, where my cousin attends, has nearly 3,500 students, allowing it to draw from multiple nearby developments.  

This is certainly larger than Fall Mountain’s FFA barn.

From my short time in Katy, the only downside I’ve noticed to the spread-out nature of free-market housing and business layout is that you have to drive absolutely everywhere (although this often happens in zoned areas as well).  Since most of the shops are concentrated in business developments, you have to drive (even if it’s only 20 minutes or less) to restaurants, grocery stores, or even Church. Businesses are built to support large numbers of customers, and the nearby highways, some of the widest in the country, are built to support the heavy traffic that travels through the area.  Inevitably, every business needs large numbers of parking spaces, further increasing distances between developments.

Considering the troubled past of American suburban developments, Katy has been relatively successful in avoiding the majority of developmental issues that arise in other American suburbs, given its unique, free-market approach to zoning.  In my next article, I analyze the largest consequence to Katy’s zoning policies in “Why Everything is Bigger in Katy, Texas.”


If you thought this article was on the boring side, the next one is more light-hearted and fun:)… and with more pictures.