Public Notice: Houston, You Have a Problem
Let’s not make the same one here
City Council Member Leslie Pool posted a tweet Sunday morning – in between a number of others regarding flood relief efforts and preparedness – saying "To any who dismiss need for Austin's zoning & imperv cover rules, I give you Houston." The Real Estate Council of Austin shot back with a press release the next day calling this "insensitive, irresponsible and flat out inaccurate. It's unlikely that any level of zoning or impervious cover regulations would safely protect a city from the power of a Category 4 hurricane ...."
So, okay, you know any place that calls itself the Bayou City is going to have some high-water issues. And granted, you can't "safely protect a city" from a once-in-seven-lifetimes event (more on that below). But it's not just Leslie Pool who's pointing out that Houston's laissez-faire zoning and planning policies have contributed to its problems. And it's not just hindsight, either.
In recent days, articles have appeared across the country, noting the failure of Houston's flood control strategies, but they're essentially reprises of earlier stories, and what hydrologists and others have been saying for years. A sampling:
• The Atlantic, in an article entitled "Houston's Flood Is a Design Problem," calls Houston the "epitome of the urban sprawl."
• ABC News notes that "commercial development has cut in half the amount of wetlands per capita that could soak up stormwater runoff. ... Houston is also the only major U.S. city without zoning, and critics say local leaders have been pro-developer."
• The Washington Post cited a 2010 report from Texas A&M showing that since 1992, "30 percent of the surrounding county's coastal prairie wetlands were paved over." And while Houston has tried to rely on engineering solutions, rather than planning and zoning regulations, "Projects to widen the bayous and build thousands of retention ponds ... have not kept pace with the new rooftops, roadways and parking lots."
• Newsweek ran a piece titled "Houston Is Drowning – In Its Freedom From Regulations."
• Even Spokane's Spokesman-Review piled on, with a story headlined: "Houston's lack of zoning left city vulnerable to catastrophic floods."
• And in the pages of the rock-ribbed Houston Chronicle itself, a guest editorial mused over a year ago that "Yes, this might mean we resurrect the feared 'Z' word – zoning!"
So what does that have to do with us?
On Tuesday evening, the Planning and Zoning & Platting commissions held a joint meeting to discuss the CodeNEXT rewrite of Austin's Land Development Code. Most of the meeting had to do with affordable housing, density bonuses, and the value of existing low-cost housing (see facing). But toward the end, the question of flood mitigation arose, and Planning Director Greg Guernsey offered to have the Watershed Protection Department present their finding that all they've analyzed so far is that the theoretical maximum impervious cover is not materially changed in the first CodeNEXT draft. But what no one has done, and what WPD will likely not have time to do for either the second or third drafts of the code, is a modeling of projected outcomes, instead of theoretical maximums. That modeling was done to project housing growth in various areas and corridors, but none of that data was used to inform flooding impact analysis.
A list of suggestions from the Save Our Springs Alliance stressed the importance of modeling: "The concern being that developers will go after low-hanging fruit first, and we could rapidly increase IC faster than we could provide mitigation where it is needed or make capital drainage improvements." Compare that to Houston, where "Projects to widen the bayous and build thousands of retention ponds ... have not kept pace with the new rooftops, roadways and parking lots," and you start to see the connection Pool was making.
Then there's the broader irony that this "biblical" flooding is hitting Houston (petrochemical capital of the world), Texas (bastion of climate science denial): Wake up, Bible Belt. Your god is indeed trying to tell you something. And not once, but three times: Houston has had three "500-year" floods in the past 27 months. (The Memorial Day Flood in May 2015 killed seven people; the Tax Day Flood in April 2016 killed eight, with 12 and 17 inches of rain, respectively.) The definition of a "500-year" event is: There's a 1 in 500 chance of such a storm happening in any given year. The chance of one happening three years in a row climbs to 1 in 125 million. At that point, do we really still consider these to be "500-year" floods? Or has the world we live in changed?
None of which should obscure or detract from the fact that Houston (and Port Aransas and Rockport and others) are in a world of hurt right now, and there are a lot of efforts underway to help. The city is mobilizing to house refugees (see "Austin Braces for Weekend Rush of Evacuees," Sept. 1), aid organizations need donations of goods and cash, and dozens of restaurants and other businesses are donating proceeds to the cause, or seeding crowdfunded donations. See austinchronicle.com/flood for continuing updates on how to help.
Planning Director Guernsey dropped another bombshell into the Tuesday PC/ZAP meeting, noting offhandedly that under the new draft regs, all single-family lots where Accessory Dwelling Units (such as garage apartments) are allowed, are going to be considered multifamily – which among other things, would disable occupancy limits and perhaps compatibility standards at one stroke throughout the central city (while still allowing huge swaths of West and South Austin to remain unchanged single-family). Commissioners took turns trying to verify if they had heard correctly. If that's true, it could be a nonstarter when it gets released on Sept. 15.