City says housing development in west Houston meets new floodplain standards

HOUSTON – The Houston City Council unanimously backed a plan Thursday to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain. The decision comes after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said developers met and exceeded new, stricter flood development standards.

The homes will be built on the site of the former Pine Crest Golf Course near Gessner and Clay roads.

Residents who live downstream are not happy about the decision, saying they're worried they could suffer more flooding.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council approved a measure regarding funding that would make it easier for developers to build roughly 900 homes.

"If you meet the requirements of Chapter 19, as amended and approved a couple weeks ago, then we want you to build in the city of Houston. We want you to develop," Turner said.

"The development at Pine Crest Golf Course -- they followed all the rules and regulations," said Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District.

The plan

Meritage Homes and Developer MetroNational plan to build homes and structures at least 2.78 feet above the 500 year floodplain -- exceeding new Chapter 19 requirements by 0.78 feet. The lowest structure would be at 2.78 feet. Developers would also build three retention ponds and a new drainage channel -- which would carrying the water to the Brickhouse Gully -- promising that it would, if anything, lessen the amount of water leaving the property.

City Council approved for developers to create a Municipal Utility District, allowing for the issuing of bonds to fund portions of the project. The mayor commented that this would not have happened if the council did not make more stringent rules in regard to Chapter 19, which requires new homes to be built 2 feet above the 500-year floodplain.

However, if the City Council rejected the measure, it would not have necessarily have stopped the development.

"In the absence of us doing what we did today, they would have been building more homes. As a results of the approval [Wednesday] along with the changes made to Chapter 19 -- they're building less," Turner said.

“The item that Council unanimously passed was to create a Municipal Utility District (MUD), which is a funding mechanism that will only impact the people who choose to buy a home at the new development. The vote was not whether or not they could build. Because of property rights in Texas, if they meet all of our codes, they have to be granted the permits to build. With the MUD, Meritage agreed to build more detention than what is required and less density. I also negotiated on behalf of the community for a use restrictions to prohibit multi-family buildings for 30 years to further reduce the density," said Council member Brenda Stardig.

Concerns with development

Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn is also the co-director of the Severe Storm Center at Rice University. He teaches Civil and Environmental Engineering and has been working in the field fore more than 30 years.

"The developer has a right to develop property if they meet the regulations. The vote at City Council was whether we were going to allow them to take advantage of public financing to finance the cost of development in the flood plain, and we need a vision that does not include development in the floodplain," Blackburn said. "Our floodplains are dangerous places. We don't treat them as dangerous places. We treat them as dangerous places. We treat them as an impediment to development that we can just design through, and we ought to be staying out of [the floodplains]."

The Harris County Flood Control District said the area where the water would drain, the Brickhouse Gully, is an area with a long history of flooding.

Cynthia Neely, a flood survivor and a board member of the group Residents Against Flooding, said it worries her that the city is making it easy for developers to build on existing floodplains.

"It's total insanity -- when you have the city and county -- they're buying out homes now because people have flooded too many time, but at the same time, they're building new homes," Neely said.

Neely said she is also skeptical about the promises made by developers.

Carlos Goenaga, who lives in Meyerland, flooded three times and is now selling his home. He was unhappy with the decision the city made to allow for a MUD district.

"I don't live in that neighborhood, but it concerns me because it's going to happen to another neighborhood," Goenaga said.

Blackburn said the issue is with the message the city is sending to developers.

"We need space for water. This eliminates space for water and that's the wrong direction to have," Blackburn said.

Harris County Flood Control District weighs in

Matt Zeve, of the Harris County Flood Control District, said residents who live around the development should not worry about a 100-year storm.

"They shouldn't be concerned because all the engineers and homebuilders followed all the rules and regulations that are in place for 100-year storm, because that's our design-storm," Zeve said. "If we have storms that are way stronger than that, which we've had way too many in the past few years, then flooding is always a possibility."

Zeve said the homebuilder and engineers did their work.

"They went above and beyond the new regulations that the City of Houston put in place effective Sept. 1 in terms of the new, finished floor elevations for home sites above the 500-year watershed elevations," Zeve said.

However, he said he wishes the HCFCD knew the property was up for grabs.

"I wish the flood control district had the opportunity to at least put an offer on the table to purchase that property for a regional detention basin," Zeve said. "Brickhouse Gully is the gully that this development drains into. Properties downstream of this development along that creek have a long history of flooding all the way down the White Oak Bayou. In fact, some of the home-area buyouts that we target when we get federal funds are along there."