Houston is a city without zoning requirements. However, city residents are airing their complaints—including issues with their larger, more industrial neighbors.

At a Jan. 11 Houston City Council meeting, council members heard from members of the city's planning and development department over proposed changes to the city’s code of ordinances regarding residential buffering on streets shared by commercial neighbors and larger, multifamily residences.

These modifications to the code, involving Chapter 42 and Chapter 39, entail setting a citywide standard for lighting requirements. The new standard deals with how exterior lighting from residential buildings and commercial construction should be placed as well as a new standard for Kelvin, or the color temperature of lighting, in Houston.

The proposals would also update requirements for commercial garages to shield residents on shared streets from headlights shining into their homes and make changes to how commercial businesses are allowed to have dumpsters on streets shared with residential properties.

Proposed changes

A public hearing was held on Jan. 11, following a presentation from the planning and development department, by Suvidha Bandi and Margaret Wallace Brown. The council is expected to vote on the actual amendments to the ordinance at its Jan. 18 meeting.

Public speakers at the Jan. 11 hearing included Sonny Garza, vice chair of the planning commission; Debbie Moran, an amateur astronomer who has become knowledgeable on lighting; and Sandy Stevens, president of the Museum Park Neighborhood Alliance.

Under the proposed changes, high-rise structures taller than 75 feet must provide buffer of 30-40 feet from all single-family residential and multiunit residential developments when along local, primarily residential, or collector streets, which feed into larger, high-traffic roads. At the same time, mid-rise structures, above 65 feet, must provide a buffer of 15 feet from all single-family residential and multiunit residential developments along local streets. This is meant to physically provide a separation between these properties, such as through landscaping or fencing.

Going forward, all garages in the city of Houston that abut or are across from residential properties must have an external cover of at least 50 inches per floor, across all garage floors, to shield residences from the glare of vehicle headlights. This is 6 inches greater than the city’s previous standard for garage shielding.

Lighting on the exterior of commercial properties, on public streets or abutting residential developments, must have a maximum color temperature of 3,500 Kelvin, a neutral-warm tone. Commercial properties must also provide a shield to block out lighting on property abutting residential developments.

Bulk containers, such as those used for garbage, now must be screened in on all public streets and when adjacent to residential properties.

Points of debate

Several council members chimed in after the public hearing to question elements of the proposed changes. With regards to the new lighting standards, District K Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum questioned why the commission settled on 3,500 Kelvin versus warmer 3,000 Kelvin lighting.

“We have looked at the whole range and consider 3,000 the alternative,” Wallace Brown said. “However, based on the information that we have gotten from both the public works department and our constituents, our customers have settled on 3,500.”

Castex-Tatum and District J Council Member Edward Pollard both expressed an interest in flexibility for treating cases individually.

Wallace Brown said there is an option in the city’s building code for an alternate method of compliance, which allows for “some flexibility.” Additionally, she said Chapter 42 allows for some variance requests.

District C Council Member Abbie Kamin noted the changes to residential buffering will not be grandfathered in.

“I would just say we continue to have challenges where someone may be holding over on a property, for let’s say over a decade, and because they are under the original application they don’t come under the new rules,” she said to Mayor Sylvester Turner. “I would just respectfully ask that we continue to look at that.”

Similarly, District I Council Member Robert Gallegos noted concerns over residential developments that are built after and abut commercial garages.

“My concern is if there is nothing there and someone builds a garage and, in time, someone comes in and builds residences across the street, the owner of the garage does not then have to go to these standards. Correct?” Gallegos said. “It’s going to happen where you’re going to have people calling into your office wanting to know why lights are shining into their residence, and your response is going to be, ‘Well the garage was built first and now your residence, so it doesn’t apply.’”

Wallace Brown and Bandi from the planning and development department said there is no clause in place to prevent that, and Turner said it is based on the city’s general principle on development: “first in time, first in rank.”

The community response

Stevens, president of the Museum Park Neighborhood Alliance, spoke to Community Impact of the changes she has witnessed in her neighborhood, which is situated between Midtown and the Texas Medical Center.

“The most recent development is about 12 stories, right in the middle of the neighborhood,” she said. “And those folks whose properties abut that high-rise have had some real issues with garage lighting.”

Warmer, or less blue, light allows one to see more at night, according to Moran, who, over the years, has gained knowledge on lighting from organizations, such as the International Dark Sky Association, and champions her local fight via Softlight Houston.

“The shorter wavelength light, which is the bluer light, scatters a lot worse. So that's why we perceive the white headlights and whiter security lights as so much higher glare,” she said. “So if you even have the same wattage of a bulb, if it's warmer versus cooler or bluer, the blue is going to look a lot more harsh to the eye. And that's just physics. It's a short wavelength light scattering a lot more than the longer wavelength light.”

In the Heights, residents have faced similar issues as far as coexisting with their commercial neighbors, such as noise from neighboring clubs and, per Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood, Big Tex Storage on East 11th Street.

“Residents came out and complained about Big Tex Storage, mostly probably because it was going to block their view of downtown,” Williamson said in an interview with Community Impact.

The city adopted noise ordinance changes last May, affecting residents and business owners, and setting a standard for sound limits.

This set of changes are the culmination of years of discussions with residents, which began in April 2021, by the planning commission and the Livable Places Committee. If approved, the changes will take effect 30 days from Houston City Council’s Jan. 18 meeting.