Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why were homes built inside the reservoirs, anyway?

A previous post included an aerial photo of the Canyon Gate subdivision in Fort Bend County that was flooded when water from Barker Reservoir backed up into it. Which begs the question: since Canyon Gate was clearly behind the dam wall of the reservoir, why was it allowed to be built to begin with? And did the homeowners in that development understand the risk that the reservoir presented to their homes? Naomi Martin at the Dallas Morning News discovers that, for the most part, they did not:
Many of the victims knew little or nothing about the risk they faced. They never purchased flood insurance. They had no clue their homes were built within government reservoirs engineered in the 1940s to fill with billions of gallons of water in case of heavy rains. The undeveloped, government-owned land inside the reservoirs had a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year. But residents' homes just upstream, in the so-called maximum pool of the reservoirs, had a significant chance of being intentionally flooded in the event of a major storm. 
"I feel cheated," said Binay Anand, 46, an engineer who lived with his wife and two kids in a $275,000 home in Canyon Gate, a subdivision in the maximum flood pool. "I was not aware — and none of the residents were aware — that this was flood-prone. If they would have told us, I would not have taken it." 
Anand said he and his neighbors only learned since Harvey that Fort Bend County had issued notice about the corps' plan to use their property as a reservoir on the original plat, which is the county's public land record approving the subdivisions. 
Politicians knew it. Bureaucrats knew it. Developers knew it. But homeowners appear to have been offered little to no notification. 
Even providing the most basic information in the plat's fine print was a political fight at the time, Fort Bend County officials said. 
"It took a yeoman's effort because the developers were saying, 'You can't make us do that,'" said Richard Stolleis, the Fort Bend county engineer. "It was a pretty significant battle — a high-level discussion — before these were put on the subdivision plat." 
County officials believed the plat's warning would be passed through the property's title to every prospective owner at closing. However, many residents said they never saw it. They may have overlooked it or missed it in a stack of documents, or their real estate agents and title workers may have not clearly explained the risk. State law doesn't require disclosure of such notes, experts said.
Not being in the real estate business, I don't know how often plats - and the language contained on them - are included in the pile of documents every homebuyer is presented with at closing. As somebody who used to process plats for the City of Denton, however, I do know that there is oftentimes critical information on that document, which is usually printed in a 24"x36" format, making the text and disclaimers impossible to read if it is reduced down to the legal size documents normally associated with real estate transactions.

As to why subdivisions such as Canyon Gate were allowed to be built inside the reservoir's dam walls to begin with, the simple truth is that there was nothing prohibiting them from being built there. They were outside of the 100-year floodplain property owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers:
The corps didn't feel the need to acquire all the land at the time the reservoirs were built, Long said, because that land was nothing but rice farms and fields where cattle grazed. 
It didn't stay that way. In 1997, developers came before Fort Bend County government for approval to put subdivisions on the pastures. Aware of the flood risk to the area, the county was in a bind. It didn't have the authority to prohibit development or establish zoning rules, said County Judge Robert Hebert, who has been in office since 2003.
Which, tangentially, brings me to something I've wanted to rant about: the idea that the lack of land-use zoning (the City of Houston being famous for being the largest city in the nation without it) is what "caused" Harvey's flooding, or made it worse than it otherwise would have been. This idea (which has been debunked here, and here, and here, and here, and here) isn't even relevant to Canyon Gate, because it is not inside Houston's city limits, and unincorporated areas under county jurisdiction do not have the authority under state law to implement zoning controls.

Beyond that fact, what I've come to understand is that, oftentimes, "zoning" is popularly conflated with "planning," even though they're not the same thing. The latter is a process a city undertakes to guide and regulate its development; the former is just one tool that a city can use in that process. Even though Houston doesn't have zoning, it is not a development free-for-all, and municipalities around Houston that do have zoning laws on the books, such as Bellaire, Missouri City, Friendswood, League City, Dickinson and Baytown, flooded as well.

The region (whether inside or outside of Houston's city limits) obviously needs better regulation in terms of construction in flood-prone areas, floodwater retention infrastructure, and preservation of pervious cover. But land use zoning (e.g. designating what properties can be single-family residential, multi-family residential, retail commercial, office commercial, industrial, institutional, agricultural, etc.) wouldn't make a difference: it would simply mean the same buildings, with the same impervious cover, would have been built in different places. (But what do I know? I'm just a native Houstonian and AICP-certified planner who did zoning work at the City of Denton.)

Getting off tangent, what is the future for homes in flood-prone areas, and entire subdivisions like Canyon Gate? I honestly have no clue, and I feel for the homeowners in these areas who have a lot of tough decisions ahead of them. Entire communities have hard choices to make in the wake of Harvey, and Memorial Day '15, and Tax Day '16. These events may represent a "new normal" that the region needs to come to terms with, and all options need to be on the table in order to confront it.

Buyouts and demolitions of at least some of the homes, apartments and other structures in areas that are chronically prone to flooding will obviously be required (this process has already begun, albeit at a very limited pace), but will not be suitable (or financially feasible) for every home that flooded during Harvey. Perhaps more homes will need to be elevated out of the floodplain or even retrofitted water-resistant materials to make them "floodwater ready." That won't be cheap, either. Nor will the construction of new stormwater detention and discharge structures, including, perhaps, a third flood control structure to augment the beleaguered Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.

As a final thought, the one thing we can probably do in the short term is to throw out the current floodplain maps. Not only have they done a poor job of predicting flooding, the entire concept of the "100-year floodplain" probably needs to be reconsidered as well.

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