City Council members, developers, builders and neighborhood leaders balked Monday at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s goal of holding a council vote on new flood control regulations just two weeks after the details are released.
Some council members also expressed concern that city officials had circulated an early draft of the proposed floodplain ordinance to industry groups — homebuilders, developers, engineers — without soliciting input from council members or the neighborhoods they represent.
In an unusual step, the mayor appeared briefly in the council chamber near the end of the lengthy committee hearing, propping himself on a table behind the council dais and observing part of the discussion, sometimes grinning or shaking his head when speakers questioned the timeline for the reforms.
Monday evening, he issued a statement pushing back against calls for a delay in considering the proposed rules.
“Council members have joined me in urging state and federal lawmakers to move urgently to provide the funding Houston needs to become more resilient and more flood resistant for when the waters rise again. We cannot make a convincing case without showing that we are moving urgently at the local level to find solutions for ourselves,” Turner said. “To continue as if nothing has changed is unrealistic and to delay action is irresponsible.”
Turner also intends to impose stiffer stormwater detention requirements for some types of redevelopment.
The proposals council discussed Monday, however, do not address detention rules or the elevation of homes outside floodplains; the mayor hopes to have those changes enacted by the summer, Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock said.
Monday’s discussion instead focused solely on Chapter 19, the portion of the city’s code of ordinances that governs floodplains. Floodplains — mapped areas of flood risk, as determined by historic rainfall data and topography — are set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered locally by Public Works.
The city’s existing building rules apply only to the 100-year floodplain, the 117,240 acres and some 101,000 parcels of land deemed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.
The mayor’s proposal would extend many of those regulations to cover an additional 33,615 acres and another 86,000 parcels in the 500-year floodplain. Structures there are considered to have a 0.2 percent chance of flooding each year, though Houston has experienced 500-year storms in each of the last three years.
Haddock said requiring rebuilt or new homes to be placed two feet above the level of a 500-year flood remains the starting point for the discussion, but her presentation listed this point as “500 year + X feet,” and she said conversations with industry groups and others could lead that figure to change.
“We’re still talking about two feet, but we’ve received some input that two feet might be more protective than we need,” Haddock said. “We are verifying that against actual data that happened during Harvey and making sure we recommend to you the right number … that represents protection to our community, but also not overly burden the cost of building and rebuilding in our floodplains.”
City officials also removed phrasing that would have explicitly required pier-and-beam construction, but kept a prohibition on builders piling extra dirt on a site to reach the required home elevation.
Another shift from the initial rollout was that the city will not extend “substantial improvement” rules governing properties in the 100-year floodplain to those in the 500-year floodplain.
That means homeowners in the 500-year floodplain whose remodeling projects cost more than half the value of their homes would not be required to bring the entire structure up to code, including current elevation standards. Newly added rooms, however, would need to meet the new elevation requirement.
A final draft of the floodplain ordinance will be released Tuesday, Haddock said, and public comment will be accepted through Feb. 19, ahead of the item heading to council Feb. 28.
That timeline was unacceptable to a clear majority of the council members present Monday, including Councilwoman Brenda Stardig.
“If there’s anyone on this council who believes that’s acceptable, I’d be shocked. Less than a week? This is too important to our city,” she said. “I won’t be bullied into it and I won’t be shamed into it.”
Stardig also expressed concern that submitting the draft to industry groups, combined with a compressed timeline, would lead to public distrust of the proposal.
“I do understand that could be a perception,” Haddock said. “What I’d say is, when we’re dealing with things directly related to how houses are built … that I’ll go to the experts in the industry, just like I’d go to a dentist when I’ve got a tooth problem.”
Still, the trade groups’ concerns were not fully addressed.
Marlene Gafrick, of developer MetroNational and the Houston Real Estate Council, said the city’s floodplain rules need revision, but she called for more data analysis and further discussion of the proposed elevation requirement and the ban on adding extra dirt to properties in the floodplain.
Civil engineer Michael Bloom added that failing to make data-driven decisions could force citizens to over-invest in reducing their flooding risk to the point of diminishing returns.
Casey Morgan, of the Greater Houston Builders Association, echoed that, saying, “I do believe we’ll continue to challenge the technical justification for going above the 500-year (flood elevation).”
A healthy chunk of the discussion focused on the added cost of the proposal. Mike Dishberger of Sandcastle Homes said the added cost of putting a 1,650-square-foot home on pier and beam versus a slab foundation would be $30,000. Haddock said her data suggests the cost would be closer to $10,000.
Flood victim Marise Mikulis suggested that debate — and discussions of the hundreds of thousands it could cost to elevate homes — missed the point.
“What about the cost of not raising them, and the cost of repairing my house three times in less than three years?” she said. “It is expensive to raise my house. It’s really expensive to replace everything I own.”
Leaders of the Super Neighborhood Alliance also called for the process to be slowed down, and backed Councilman Robert Gallegos’ idea to have city officials educate the public about the reforms at the annual Capital Improvement Plan meetings being planned in each of the 11 council districts next month.
“We need time for the community to engage this and respond,” alliance president Michael Huffmaster said, “and that time should begin now.”