Houston’s city council is battening down the hatches with regards to future flood mitigation, which could impact notable change for new home builders in our local neighborhoods — though it was not without pushback.
Late Wednesday, April 4, council members concluded hours of intense deliberation by narrowly (9-7) passing more stringent bylaws for building new properties inside an amended 500-year floodplain. The new rules expand the regulations for new and substantial changes to homes built two feet above the 500-year floodplain. Houston has experienced three 500-year flood events over the past three years, and current by-laws only require buildings to withstand a 100-year flood.
“This is a signature moment for our city; a transformative move to save lives, make Houston more resilient and preserve the factors that attract newcomers,” Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted out April 4, shortly following passage.
Last week’s changes come on the heels of Harris County adopting more rigid regulations for structures within the city’s floodplain, and city of Houston Floodplain Manager Jamila Johnson said 84 percent of damaged structures within the 100-year and 500-year floodplain would not have flooded with the new rule. More than 31,000 homes in Council Districts A, C, and H (which encompass many of our local neighborhoods) within the 100 and 500-year floodplain suffered damage from Harvey’s wrath according to city data.
The change will impact mostly new or planned development once it goes into effect Sept. 1. According to Johnson, changes will impact nearly 187,000 parcels of land, including nearly 86,000 not previously regulated under Chapter 19.
“If we follow these requirements, extreme flooding [like Harvey] will have less of a chance of impacting new buildings moving forward,” she said.
Council initially postponed a vote during an early morning session April 4; but following several hours of debate, they ultimately passed the measure by the slimmest of margins. Voting against the measure were council members Mike Knox, Mike Laster, Brenda Stardig (District A), Mike Kubosh, Steve Le, Jack Christie and Greg Travis.
Stardig, whose District includes Lazybrook and Timbergrove, previously said her opposition stance is a simple one; she believes the changes to be incomplete.
“Some of the changes to Chapter 19 will be a good first step, but the changes do not consider the whole picture. I am hesitant to support anything without seeing the bigger picture, specifically a timeline to implement all the other necessary changes,” she said prior to the vote. “I also want to see the proposed changes to Chapter 19 align more closely with the recent changes made by Harris County. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. We need better data that shows how much money we are asking people to invest into these proposed changes. I want to make sure that people are not going to be asked to spend money on changes that do not adequately address the problem.”
Among the nine council members expressing support for the ordinance were local representatives Karla Cisneros (District H) and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen (District C).
“The passage [of the Chapter 19 floodplain ordinance] represented a defining moment,” said Cisneros, whose District includes portions of the Greater Heights, Independence Heights, and Near Northside. “This is an issue we simply could not kick down the road for another 17 years.
This was about making difficult, but responsible, choices. We need to build higher, and we need to do that responsibly.”
Cisneros acknowledged that imperfections remain in the proposal; but still believes it represents a step in the right direction, and said initial action is preferable to no action.
“If we put off making decisions for another year, two years, or possibly four years for better maps, data, and the benefit of hindsight, could we be more accurate? Of course, we could, but at what cost? I believe the ordinance as proposed strikes a balance and is practical, reasonable, and a good substantive start on mitigating the risks of flooding,” she said.
District C, which includes many local neighborhoods, has been among the hardest hit district over the last several years, with some being hit by all three events. Harvey impacted more than 12,000 homes in Garden Oaks, Oak Forest, Timbergrove, the Heights, Lazybrook and beyond.
“We had to do something; to do nothing would truly have been the definition of insanity – it’s expecting a different result [with the same process]. We simply had to move forward,” Cohen said. “We’re also talking about an additional reservoir, expanding the bayous and homes that can be built upstream. It’s about a number of things to ensure we don’t get caught the way we did with Harvey.”
However, as evidenced by the final margin, there remained plenty of unrest. Many public speakers commented in opposition to the ordinance, while some realtors and developers also opposed Turner’s proposed amendments.
According to a report from our media partners at KHOU, an amendment by councilmember Jack Christie would require putting new building elevation two feet above the 100-year level and exempted some homes that didn’t previously flood was also voted down over insurance concerns.