New flood construction regulations created loophole prior to 9/1 deadline

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - Drive through Houston neighborhoods flooded during Hurricane Harvey and one will see the signs of rebuilding. One familiar sight is the rise of aged foundations.

All appears and sounds well, but the construction soundtrack is not necessarily music to everyone's ears. Andrew Schaefer says, "It definitely does not sound like progress."

Schaefer has called Timbergrove Manor, near White Oak Bayou in northwest Houston, home for more than a decade.

In his words, "It's a very small, special, tight-knit community."

During Harvey, his neighborhood, like so many others, was overwhelmed.

Now, Schaefer and his neighbors are concerned over what's being planned on the other side of his fence: a proposal for nearly 80 new townhomes in the 100-year floodplain.

In April, the City Council barely passed a revised Chapter 19 of the City Houston Code of Ordinances. The new measures now require all new construction, including rebuilds, to meet the 500-year floodplain standard plus an additional 2 feet. Mayor Sylvester Turner at the time cited one key stat: "By building 2 feet higher, 84 percent of the structures would not have flooded. That is real and that is substantive."

But the new ordinance had a big loophole. Projects green-lit after the City Council’s vote and before the new ordinance went into effect were allowed to go forward under the old standards. Civil engineer Shawn Theriot-Smith, founder of the blog Building Bayou City, says, "If you were administratively complete, if you had submitted your plans and had secured a form for stormwater availability prior to Sept. 1, you were still grandfathered in to previous floodplain regulations."

The new rules are expected to cost developers and builders a lot of extra money.

"It definitely could raise the project's value, construction costs' value almost twice as much in some cases,” according to Theriot-Smith.

The city's permitting center tells Channel 2 Investigates that for 2018 through Sept. 6, an average of 259 new build permit applications have been submitted per week. Numbers also show a huge spike in the final days of August, just prior to the new regulations taking effect. The largest number of those permits were for housing.

“That's a lot. It bothers me. I think it's a violation of the spirit of what the city was trying to do," says environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.

Blackburn, who is also part of Rice University's Baker Institute, believes the loophole was created to benefit special interests. "I think it's all political. I think that the decision to tighten the regulations was out of necessity. Our regulations are inadequate, our floodplain maps are obsolete.”

As for the lag time? Blackburn tells Channel 2 Investigates, “The lag time is political, and so that is where the politics come in, giving people on the inside the chance to slip under the wire.”

It was not easy for Channel 2 Investigates to get answers from the city as flood czar Stephen Costello canceled on a one-on-one interview.

Turner did issue a statement late Thursday night through a spokesman, stating: “After construction reforms were approved by City Council to make our city more flood-resistant, it made common sense to have a transition period so applicants for building permits could adjust their plans. But even before the reforms took effect Sept. 1, the city encouraged permit applicants to comply with the reforms voluntarily – to make Houston more resilient as soon as possible and to make new homes and other construction more attractive to buyers looking to invest in safe structures. The new standards were approved and enacted in a public process, meaning there was no advantage for any 'insiders.'"

Back in Timbergrove Manor, Schaefer says new construction green-lit by the old standards ultimately will impact everyone financially -- that is, of course, everyone except the developer. "They build it. They sell it, and they walk away. And they don't have to deal with it. It's on the taxpayers after that to deal with the mess, the cleanup and the fallout from irresponsible development."

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