HOUSTON—For years there hadn’t been much debate over how to regulate land use here. Developers in the nation’s fourth-largest city mostly built what they wanted, where they wanted.
Now, after Hurricane Harvey killed at least 50 people and caused roughly $180 billion in damage, a battle is shaping up over how best to oversee real-estate development in Houston.
“If Houston does not change, it will not survive from an economic standpoint,” said Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law and the co-founder of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SPEED) Center. “This absolutelshould change our policies and our trajectory.”
Two men in particular will have a large say in Houston’s path forward.
Stephen Costello, whose official title is chief resilience officer, but who is known to many as Houston’s flood czar, says the go-go culture of growth is here to stay.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a dramatic change in the way we are developing,” he said.
Regulating development through, say, a stricter zoning code was a nonstarter, he said.
“Zoning is never going to happen here, not in my lifetime,” he said.
Instead, he believes the city needs to build its way out of its flooding problem by investing in a better system to more quickly and efficiently move rainwater out of town and into the bayous during heavy rains.
The second man with a large say in this argument is Russell Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. He hopes to leverage a FEMA program to buy hundreds, if not thousands, of homes in vulnerable areas.
For that to come to pass, it needs to happen soon, he said.
“We would prefer to buy these homes out now before they start making improvements,” he said. “We’re interested in homes we consider hopelessly deep in the floodplain.”
Many Houston residents would appear eager for such a plan. Mr. Costello says his phone has rung consistently in the wake of Harvey with dozens of people asking for the city to buy their homes.
Federal officials and scientists like Mr. Blackburn have long urged Houston, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, to preserve more of its prairie and regulate development to mitigate the flooding that has plagued residents for decades. They haven’t had the ear of the area’s politicians who, by and large, have championed development to push economic growth.
Harris County, where Houston sits, added more people than any other U.S. county during the eight years before 2015, according to Census Bureau data. To make way for that growth, developers have paved over enormous tracts of prairie land that once soaked up the rains that sweep in from the Gulf of Mexico.
The tabletop flat city is now a sprawling metropolis stitched together by 10-lane elevated highways connecting far-flung subdivisions filled with single-family homes. The unmanaged growth has meant cheap housing relative to other parts of the country, which helps attract even more people.
“Almost all the flooding in Houston is the result of poor development decisions,” said John Jacob, a professor of watershed science at Texas A&M University.
To mitigate the loss of prairie land and the increase in homes near rivers, the city has built drainage systems that channel rainwater toward the city’s bayous. A half dozen major floods in recent years show that infrastructure hasn’t been equal to the task, and critics say the catastrophic damage caused by Harvey is the last straw.
But developers and city officials say the scale of Harvey was so massive it is neither fair nor smart to draw conclusions from the storm yet. They note that building code restrictions and other regulations have gradually become more strict since the 1990s.
Fred Caldwell, president and chief executive of Caldwell Companies, a commercial and residential real estate developer, believes the development community has done an “incredible job in protecting natural areas,” noting that his company has incorporated green space into its planned residential communities. He disputed the notion that unfettered development would have mitigated Harvey’s impact. The amount of rainfall—an record of 51.88 inches—would have devastated an area with stricter zoning, building regulations and more green space, he said.
“To try to plan for that kind of event would be challenging in any metropolitan area,” said Mr. Caldwell. “The goal, I don’t believe, should be to totally mitigate the impact of this kind of event forever. It was the largest event of its kind.”
Mr. Blackburn, who has litigated environmental cases and worked in this field in Houston for more than four decades, believes conversations on regulation and a moratorium on development in the floodplains, for example, will go nowhere. Instead, he hopes a market forces-driven solution to preserving prairie lands and wetlands, like incentivizing farmers and ranchers to keep their land, could be feasible and accepted.
Mr. Jacob called possible FEMA buyouts a step in the right direction, albeit an expensive one. He believes his concept to prevent developers from again building in the floodplain is simple and much cheaper.
“I’d like to see a sign in every subdivision that shows where the water came up to during each storm,” he said. “If you shine a light on things you can make a tremendous difference. Let people make their own choices, and you won’t need any regulation.”
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