Houston Passes First Post-Harvey Rules to Reduce Flood Damage

by | April 5, 2018

By Rebecca Elliott

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.

Nearly half the council members had indicated their opposition to the proposed revisions before the meeting, leaving  the fiercest debates Wednesday for a series of amendments offered by Christie, Travis and Robinson.

Christie, an at-large representative, filed an amendment last week intended to relax the proposed elevation requirements in the 500-year flood plain and tie the rules to a property's flood risk and history.

"We're overcompensating for the people that don't need to comply in these areas that never flooded," he said.

Christie's language would have caused the city to run afoul of federal requirements, Public Works Director Carol Haddock said, potentially imperiling Houston homeowners' ability to qualify for flood insurance.

Turner called the amendment "a serious mistake."

"If you vote for this amendment, you'll not only impact the people in the floodplain, but people who are trying to get insurance -- flood insurance -- outside. They're not going to be able to get it," the mayor said.

He then cited a letter the city received Wednesday morning from Roy Wright, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, supporting the administration's plan.

"In order for the nation to be more resilient, many communities will need to take these forward leaning steps," Wright wrote. "We will be looking to Houston to lead the nation in its resilience and capacity to shape policies that keep citizens safe through all hazards."

Travis, who represents west Houston's District G, tried to alleviate concern about flood insurance ineligibility by restricting Christie's amendment to construction in the 500-year floodplain. The amendment failed.

Next, Travis' proposal to roll back the new rules so they only govern the 100-year floodplain once the Federal Emergency Management Agency releases new maps also prompted a lengthy discussion. Harris County's 100-year floodplain is expected to grow significantly.

Turner opposed the move, arguing against binding city regulations to maps that do not yet exist. Robinson, an at-large councilman, offered a watered-down version that ultimately passed and requires the Public Works director to review the new maps once they are released, and make a recommendation to the mayor and council.

Travis' attempt to loosen the city's proposed restrictions on adding "fill" to lots 15,000 square feet or smaller to achieve the required elevation later failed. Several more technical amendments offered by Cohen -- who represents District C, which curves from northwest to southwest Houston -- won approval.

With only the administration's proposed regulations left to consider, Travis lashed out at Martin, accusing his conservative counterpart of selling his vote to get the mayor to lower the level of Lake Houston by 2.5 feet before a rainstorm last week.

"Sold my soul? I will sell my soul to represent my district tomorrow and the next day. You have no idea what you're talking about because you don't know where Kingwood is, sir," Martin fired back. "Whether you say I sold out, you can call it whatever the hell you want to call it, I protect my neighborhood."

Absent the late Councilman Larry Green, Martin provided the mayor with the clinching vote.

"I did not come here to be mayor to be an incrementalist," Turner later said in celebration. "I came here to be transformational."

The mayor within the year also plans to bring forward elevation requirements for new buildings outside the floodplain, and to require that builders redeveloping large parcels of land provide additional stormwater detention, among other changes.

Separately, the council signed off on federally-funded elevation contracts for nine southwest Houston homes.

(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle