New Harris County floodplain rules draw concern over development costs

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Updated 12:05 p.m. July 19: The story has been updated from its original version to say the new standards require developers to build enough detention to offset flooding in the 500-year floodplain. The story previously said this would require developers to build a minimum of five times as much detention.

Updated 8:30 a.m. July 22: Jim Robertson is on the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition’s board of directors. The story previously said he was chairman.


Following approval of Harris County’s new floodplain development regulations July 9, public response has been mixed, with some supportive of increased flood mitigation and others—namely developers—concerned over increased building costs.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved tougher rules for building in floodplains in unincorporated Harris County, based on Atlas-14 rainfall data released last September. The study, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, updated Texas’ precipitation frequency estimates.

“The idea is to make sure the new development takes into account the latest rainfall projections, and the new development is required to detain as much water as possible so as to offset any impact they would have on the folks downstream,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the July 9 meeting.

The new standards require developers to build enough detention to offset flooding in the 500-year floodplain, or areas that have a 0.2% chance of flooding in a given year. Previously, county requirements only covered the 100-year floodplain, or areas with a 1% chance of flooding in a given year.

The mitigation is in addition to any other requirements that may be enforced by local floodplain administrators, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

The new rules will be effective until the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps are updated, which mostly likely will not happen until 2021.

Some local entities have been pressuring the county to enact more stringent regulations in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Texas coast in August 2017. Officials with the Cypress Creek Cultural District, which runs along Cypresswood Drive in Spring, advocated for new development guidelines after Hurricane Harvey flooded several of its buildings, including the Barbara Bush Branch Library and The Centrum. HCFCD estimates that about 154,170 structures and 600,000 vehicles flooded during Harvey in Harris County alone.

“I’m very pleased that the county and flood control [district]are moving in the direction that they are,” said Jim Robertson, a board director on the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition, adding that the coalition has yet to take an official stance. “We know that the rainfall detail that we [were]using [was not]reflective of the current conditions, so including the Atlas-14 information and putting some interim regulations is certainly a move in the right direction.”

Cost concerns

In May, several Houston-area organizations penned a letter to Hidalgo urging commissioners court to delay adopting the new development regulations, requesting more time to review the rules as well as to consider development costs. Nine organizations signed in support, including the West Houston Association, American Council of Engineering Companies, the Greater Houston Builders Association, the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Association of Realtors, or HAR.

Following court approval, HAR board member Bill Baldwin said although there are increased costs associated with the new standards, HAR is supportive of having more flood-resilient housing in unincorporated Harris County.

“We at HAR are always concerned about affordability, and any change to building or development standards does have some bearing on the cost of building, which affects the price of homes,” Baldwin said in an email. “I think any new regulatory standard does inherently affect development costs, even in the short-term as development plans and models need revision. Of course, the requirement for increased detention has some hard costs associated with it tied to construction and land, and I think we will adjust to those.”

Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce President Bobby Lieb said cost concerns were at the forefront in his discussions with local developers and realtors over the new regulations.

“We understand the need to further mitigate future flooding concerns … [but]the costs that will be incurred by development will outweigh the benefits,” Lieb said, adding these opinions were those of other stakeholders and are not necessarily reflective of his or the chamber’s. “It’s going to increase the cost of development.”

In September, the City of Houston rolled out similar rules for building in the 500-year floodplain, and costs have hit landowners and developers hard, said Tom Dosch, the principal and co-founder at Dosch Marshall Real Estate, a commercial real estate agency in Houston.

“With the new floodplain ordinance, it’s made it really difficult for developers … to build out of the floodplain,” he said.

Dosch said he has worked with properties that did not flood during Harvey, but because they were located in the 500-year floodplain, new standards required them to raise the development elevation anyway.

“Their site is devalued significantly, because if anyone wants to buy it for development, they have to raise it out of the 500-year floodplain,” he said.

The increased costs will affect housing in Harris County, which is already suffering an “affordable housing crisis,” said Soleil Watt, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Northwest Harris County, which builds affordable housing units.

“Whether you are trying to be an affordable housing developer or not, [the new regulations]are forcing your hand to spend more money in providing strategies to have flood mitigation, which really will drive up the costs, which in turn, is handed down to the consumer.”

Watt said she understands the need for flood mitigation but wishes there had been more time to discuss the regulations before they were adopted.

“It’s a fine line between finding a solution that will protect people in the event of another storm like Harvey, but also doing so where it does not have the domino effect that will impact our community and push it in the wrong direction,” she said.

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  1. If you look at current detention volume factors, they are 0.55 into a channel, 0.65 into a storm sewer, and 1.00 into a roadside ditch presumably to allow for different flow rates from the various drainage mechanisms. Neither the current rules nor the 500 year flood modification take into account if the immediate drainage was flooded by Harvey, Allison, etc. If the channel was full near the property under development then there is not room to hold more water and detention rates should be higher. If the channel flows downstream into channels that were out of banks by recent flood events then detention and run off control that improves rather than at bests makes it no worse should be the rule. Not improving flood mitigation is a cost on everyone.

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Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.
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