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Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

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  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I may lose my libertarian street cred, but I am OK with this. If new home and business owners call the city for rescue when it floods, then the city should be able to ask that those folks do something to help themselves.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    I may lose my libertarian street cred, but I am OK with this. If new home and business owners call the city for rescue when it floods, then the city should be able to ask that those folks do something to help themselves.

  3. penwyth says:

    This vote sounds like most of the city council realizes and understands our city’s new reality.

  4. Flypusher says:

    Good! This is a much needed pound-wise (finally!) first step. Ignoring environmental realities in development is stupidity that approaches the criminal level.

  5. C.L. says:

    Penwyth, if by ‘most’ you mean 56%, then yes. The fact that it was even this close astounds me. Have we learned nothing as a City ? It’s flatter than a pancake ’round here, it’s like a cow pissing on a flat rock, with more concrete comes more runoff, the west side rice fields are gone, extreme weather is the new normal, etc. If we can’t convince Elon Musk’s Boring Company to lay pipe and pumps between Addicks Reservoir and Freeport (about as due south as you can get), then we’d better start building structures higher up off the ground.

  6. Flypusher says:

    Those 7 no votes, I wonder how much Harvey impacted their districts.

  7. Manny Barrera says:

    It not only effects new owners, it will effect people that get flooded who already own their homes, substantial damage, over 50% of market value before the flood occurs.

    Not all of the council persons were representative of single member districts, many were at-large.

    Most of the homes that flooded in Houston proper were not in a flood plain, poor drainage was the cause.

    If you don’t have a mortgage there is no requirement that you carry flood insurance even if you live in a flood plain.

    What is interesting that the third dam that the county wants to build will primarily benefit developers.

    Our Flood Czar is being sued, well his company is being sued by people in Ft. Bend,

    I read the ordinance and not allowing fill dirt to raise the houses, will help.

    I am wondering why my council member Mike Laster voted against the ordinance, many of the houses in his district flooded.

    This is a good article on how things went down at the meeting,

  8. The Public says:

    Flypusher, Greg Travis’ District G experienced the worst due to the Dam releases. He still voted no. Go figure.

    I can’t imagine why by requiring developers to adhere to a 2ft. rule this is a show-stopper for some folks.