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  • Ellen Bassett

Houston, Flooding and Land Use Planning

I’ve been watching the fall out regarding this fall’s set of hurricanes with real interest. As many of you know one of the most effected cities, Houston, doesn’t practice conventional land use planning in that it doesn’t have a comprehensive zoning ordinance. The city is really big—600 square miles, encompassing nine counties. It is sprawling and extremely auto-dependent. It is also pretty affordable (although cheap, including illegal labor plays a role there.) The lack of zoning doesn’t mean that that land use isn’t controlled—rather it is done often through covenants and the rules of neighborhood associations.

But you also need to trust your developer in such a situation. The NYT has a very interesting article today on how in one locality a developer “gerrymandered” the flood maps along with a lot of fill dirt to make it appear that his swanky development was not at risk from flooding. The article shows some level of collusion between engineers (including those charged with maintaining map accuracy) and the developers. Who is going to bear the cost? Well in this case it is the homeowners who are now finding that their property value is plummeting as the risk is known and undeniable to prospective buyers. In some research on FEMA maps and home prices in Norfolk, we are, of course, finding the same impact. Today’s article is at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/02/us/houston-flood-zone-hurricane-harvey.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

The best take away from the article I believe is: “Once a floodplain, always a floodplain” a quote from Larry Larson, the director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, Wisconsin. (On Wisconsin!)

There’s still debate as to whether poor land use planning is culpable for what has gone on in Houston. There is an apparent left-right divide here as well. The Strong Towns’ article (below) was reprinted by the National Review; the more critical articles show up in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Read for yourself at:

Poor land use planning is culpable:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/investigations/harvey-urban-planning/?utm_term=.45f0758f6c8a

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/less-sprawl-would-have-helped-houston-weather-harvey.html

Not the problem:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/8/30/houston-hurricane-harvey-land-use

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/how_houston_and_harris_county_s_zoning_approach_affected_hurricane_harvey.html

My colleague Andrew Kahrl from UVA's history department has written a compelling op ed about the link between greed and climate risk for The Washington Post. Read it here.

Last Updated:  14 September 2020