Friendswood officials face concerns over flood risks as residents question development

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Update (July 19): The article added clarification about Harris County Flood Control District’s role in the review process, as it does not have an elected board. 

Friendswood is one of many communities navigating a post-Hurricane Harvey environment in which it must balance growth and flood mitigation with limited resources along with another layer of complexity: increasing public fears and scrutiny over decisions affecting flood risks.

City leaders say its policies are effective at regulating development and stand by their decision to fall back to 1999 FEMA flood maps for its Harris County portions of the city. Moreover, experts in drainage say lack of regulation in the past, not current rules, are responsible for many of the ill effects being seen after significant storms today.

Meanwhile, city leaders have said Friendswood needs to expand its commercial base, and since the hurricane, the city has approved about $21 million in construction permits, most of which are commercial, based on records provided to Community Impact Newspaper.

“A perception people have is that all development is bad,” said Mayor Mike Foreman, who was elected in May. “But I don’t think drainage and development are conflicting necessarily.”

An effort by the city to engage its residents is underway, but some worry they do not have many opportunities to raise alarms about flooding.

“Other than us speaking out to council I don’t know how much more involved we can be,” said Connie Ratisseau, whose house flooded in Hurricane Harvey and who has founded a Facebook group to discuss flooding concerns.

Regulating development

Jarrod Aden, a civil engineer whose firm, Lentz Engineering, consults for the Galveston County Drainage District, Brazoria County Drainage District 4 and other jurisdictions, said those in his field have a phrase to explain why many areas fare poorly during severe rains.

“We refer to it as the ‘sins of the past’ … in let’s say the ’60s or the ’80s we didn’t know any better. We built houses too low. We built without detention,” he said. “The reality is 40 years or so years ago we just weren’t very smart in that regard, and it shows in events like Harvey.”

Both Aden and city of Friendswood officials point out that during Harvey most of the new areas of development had the least damage. Friendswood will be mapping data to confirm that, said City Manager Morad Kabiri, as part of a new City Council-led subcommittee on drainage.

Friendswood requires every development to mitigate its effect on drainage within the 100-year flood plain, or the level of flooding produced during a 100-year storm, which has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year. Buildings in city limits are required to sit at 2 feet above the 100-year base flood elevation, a standard recently adopted by League City that has been in effect in Friendswood for 20 years.

As part of a mitigation strategy, property owners can add on-site detention basins or pay the Galveston County Consolidated Drainage District a fee to handle its runoff, but even then the project must ensure water can reach a nearby basin, officials said.

At each stage of review by city staff, from a preliminary meeting with developers to development, design and construction permits, flood mitigation and drainage is considered, Kabiri said.

“We go through multiple iterations. … If things don’t comply with good engineering practice or industry standard, we comment and go back and forth,” Kabiri said. “Flooding has always been a concern.”

Before a project begins permitting, the Development Review Committee invites officials from the drainage districts, police, fire and other departments to weigh in on potential concerns.

To get any permits approved, licensed professional engineers must sign off on site drainage plans, as does the flood control district overseeing the property.

“This is a very technical process,” Aden said. “It’s not subjective. It’s a very black-and-white process.”

Projects in a floodway must take into account complex hydrologic and hydraulic studies, which examine both the natural flow of water and how runoff moves through a drainage system.

Because drainage district boards are made up of elected officials, they do not always have the expertise to critically review a plan, he said. That is why they rely on staff engineers, if they have one, or a firm like Lentz. These same engineers are often the ones hired by developers to design drainage plans, in which case, Aden said, they take steps to avoid conflicts of interest.

“With the Friendswood district our agreement says we won’t ever work for private developers in their district,” Aden said.

Harris County doesn’t have an elected drainage district board, and flood control district staff reviews plans only for development projects that tie into its drainage system, officials said. In other cases, the Harris County engineer reviews plans. Construction is monitored by district staff when projects involve flood district right-of-way, officials said.

Questioning policy

The industry standard 100-year flood level dictates how projects are designed in Friendswood and elsewhere. Some have questioned whether more aggressive restrictions should be put in place.

In the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium’s initial assessment of the region’s flood risks, one of its recommendations was to address policy shortcomings on detention and mitigation, and some jurisdictions have followed suit in recent months.

Harris County is now requiring development to be built above the 500-year level in its unincoproated areas, for example. But these changes may not be foolproof and may even trigger lawsuits from developers and property owners, Kabiri said.

Because each development must demonstrate no negative effects on flooding at the 100-year level, the current standard scales up as development expands, he said.

However, both Aden and Kabiri said discussions are happening across their professions on how to adjust, including how rainfall estimates—referred to as intensity, duration and frequency, or IDF curves—are calculated and used.

“The consensus seems to be that it seems as though we’ve had the worst luck ever—or maybe what we’re calling a 100-year storm is not a 100-year storm,” Aden said. However, adopting a 500-year standard may not be practical either, he said.

Kabiri said he would like to adopt a consistent flood map for the entire city, but such a map doesn’t exist beyond the 1999. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued preliminary maps for feedback, which the city says it is reviewing. Until these are approved by FEMA, Kabiri wants to keep the 1999 flood maps in effect—a decision criticized by some residents. Because the Harris County Flood Control District has to review any projects on its side, it may still apply the 2007 maps when making permit decisions, Kabiri said.

Organized advocacy

When residents learned that dirt was being placed in a flood-prone area at 2811 Dixie Farm Road under a city and flood-district-approved permit, they packed a City Council meeting, threatened to sue and attracted TV news crews—a sign that fears of flooding remain strong almost a year after Hurricane Harvey.

“Any time it rains we’re on edge,” said Ratisseau, who launched the Facebook group “Friendswood’s Fight Against Future Flooding” about three months ago to help advocate for funding toward drainage projects. As of June 30, it had over 300 members.

“We were told if Friendswood wants any of the money we were going to have to fight,” she said. “We need the citizens to push for this. So that’s why I started the group: A, to educate people on what’s going on, and B, to organize.”

Members of the group have also been questioning the city’s policies, such as adopting the 1999 maps and allowing a development in a floodway on Dixie Farm Road. The Harris County flood district has since said that was a mistake, and the city has asked the property owner to re-apply for a permit. The dirt remains on the property.

The City Council, hoping to get ahead of potential drainage problems, has formed a subcommittee of five residents, two council members, Harris and Galveston county drainage district officials and city staff, said Foreman, who backed the creation of the committee at his first council retreat meeting as mayor in June.

Over the next six months, the group will discuss potentially overlooked flood mitigation ideas, including looking at neighborhoods built before regulations were in place, Foreman said.

“The thing you don’t want to hear is, ‘The city can only do so much,’” he said. “We have a lot of smart people here on council, on staff, so why don’t we just look at what we’re not doing?”

Friendswood officials face concerns over flood risks
Friendswood officials face concerns over flood risks

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Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018. A graduate of the University of Houston, Matt was most recently the director of community outreach and engagement at the Columbia Missourian and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
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