Houston Considers New Housing Project in Flood Plain

December 18, 2017

A housing developer is hoping to win approval from Houston, Texas, officials to put a 151-acre project on a former golf course where the city and Harris County have spent millions of dollars to buy out homeowners whose properties were damaged by flooding because they were living in a flood plain.

The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday that the plan by Meritage Homes, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, would put new construction in a floodway, an area where rising waters move fastest during a 100-year storm. The plan came to light only after a member of an anti-flooding group recently questioned the proposal before the Houston City Council, according to the newspaper.

As part of an ongoing investigation following the devastation from Hurricane Harvey earlier this year, the Chronicle has found Harris County and Houston allowed 20,000 parcels worth $13.5 billion to be developed in or along floodways where structures cause water to pile up behind them, raise the overall height of floodwaters after major rains and push water across more land.

About 75 percent of the buildings on those 20,000 parcels in or along the floodways were built before 1985, before the first 100-year flood elevations for Harris County were published. And about 1,400 structures were built in the city and county since 2008, seven years after Tropical Storm Allison exposed flood vulnerabilities.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s chief administrator, said the county has little power to regulate land use under state law, although the county now is attempting to force builders to elevate new structures above the level of a 500-year storm, instead of the 100-year standard.

“We live in a world where any kind of government control is looked upon skeptically,” Emmett said. “I’m starting with the overarching view that we should convert [large parts of the flood plain] into green space. How we are going to get there, I don’t know.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he cannot address what happened in Houston before he was elected mayor in 2016, but that it is now a “post-Harvey world” where all the city’s flood plain regulations are under review.

The Houston City Council in 2006, five years after Allison’s $9 billion in damages, approved an ordinance banning new buildings in the floodway. The city relented, however, after lawsuits contending the prohibition was an unjust taking of property. A reworked ordinance allowed people to build on piers, with dirt dug out to account for the space taken up by the piers and with the inclusion of an engineering study showing construction will have minimal impact on flood levels.

Now city officials are faced with deciding if Meritage can build homes of up to $500,000 along the Brickhouse Gully floodway where preliminary estimates from the city show Harvey damaged more than 2,300 homes and apartments.

The original Meritage site plan was approved in September 2016, about a year before Harvey hit Texas, but last month the City Council held off approval of a municipal utility district for the subdivision.

Matthew Zeve, director of operations for the flood control district, said nearby homeowners have complained about Meritage’s proposed project but the district had to evaluate it based on current requirements, which were in place before Harvey.

“I’d love to build a big old hole in the ground right there and try to reduce flood risks on Brickhouse Gully,” Zeve said.

The company’s engineering firm has submitted a memo to city officials saying its model shows that even in a storm like Harvey, water wouldn’t top street curbs.

Robert Moore, director of land development for Meritage, said the company intends to meet new standards should the city adopt them.

“No one wants to build the development of tomorrow to yesterday’s standards,” Moore said. “If we’ve misjudged or aimed too low, we’ll find a way.”

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