Will Hous­ton’s lax zon­ing rules change af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey?

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Nation&world - By Bloomberg News

Of­fi­cials look­ing to re­build weigh views of busi­ness lead­ers vs. en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists

HOUS­TON — As post-hur­ri­cane Hous­ton dries out, cracks are ap­pear­ing.

Har­vey’s floods ex­posed the clash be­tween two vi­sions: Busi­ness lead­ers say the sprawl­ing, eco­nom­i­cally vi­brant metropo­lis shouldn’t change its hand­soff ap­proach to plan­ning. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and disas­ter ex­perts warn that Hous­ton is court­ing a re­peat catas­tro­phe.

In the mid­dle are lo­cal of­fi­cials, who have said they’re will­ing to con­sider rules and pro­grams to pro­tect Hous­ton — but haven’t said what, or at whose ex­pense.

“We re­ally need a whole new scheme,” said Ed Emmett, the elected ad­min­is­tra­tor of Har­ris County, which en­com­passes Hous­ton. “Hope­fully, this will be a wake-up call.”

Last month, Har­vey de­stroyed or dam­aged about 136,000 homes in the county. Now at stake are their re­build­ing or re­pair, the dis­tri­bu­tion of tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral as­sis­tance, and the essence of Amer­ica’s fourth-largest city.

The next storm could be still more de­struc­tive. But pro­tec­tion means rules, and rules go against Hous­ton’s ethos.

“One of the rea­sons that Hous­ton has grown the way

it has is be­cause of no zon­ing, and it’s easy to de­velop there,” said Til­man Fer­titta, CEO of the Hous­ton-based restau­rant chain Landry’s Inc. Fer­titta, who this month agreed to buy the NBA’s Hous­ton Rock­ets for $2.2 bil­lion, said com­mon sense, rather than rules, will dic­tate how the city re­vives.

“Hous­ton is a big swamp that sits on the bay­ous and all the creeks and all the oxbows off the bayou,” Fer­titta said. “We just need to be smarter. You don’t need to build homes next to a reser­voir.”

Greg Bren­ne­man, a pri­vate eq­uity in­vestor, said that while he ex­pected re­build­ing to start quickly, the re­sult would not nec­es­sar­ily be any dif­fer­ent.

“I don’t know that there will be dra­matic changes” to zon­ing laws or reg­u­la­tions, he told Bloomberg Tele­vi­sion. “No­body had ever seen 50 inches of rain be­fore. If you dumped 50 inches of rain on any city, in­clud­ing New York City, you’re go­ing to have flood­ing. There’s no city, how­ever it’s gov­erned, that can han­dle that.”

But ex­perts say there are ways to min­i­mize dam­age. Hous­ton would ben­e­fit from bet­ter plan­ning across city and county lines, said Wes­ley High­field, a pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity in Galve­ston who focuses on en­vi­ron­men­tal plan­ning and hazard mit­i­ga­tion.

“It takes a re­gional, high­level view to fig­ure out why things worked out or didn’t,” High­field said.

On its own, Hous­ton could reg­u­late where and how houses are built, keep­ing them out of flood­plains and re­quir­ing that they be higher.

Chad Bergin­nis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of State Flood­plain Man­agers, said build­ing homes just 4 feet above 100-year flood lev­els can cut in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums 75 per­cent, mean­ing the cost can be paid off in a few years. He said the main ob­jec­tions come from home­builders.

“I get so frus­trated,” Bergin­nis said. “There is op­po­si­tion to any­thing from their per­spec­tive that in­creases the cost of a build­ing.”

Ned Munoz, gen­eral coun­sel of the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of Builders, said in an email that sup­port­ers of tighter codes do not un­der­stand how strin­gent they al­ready are. He said back­ers are gen­er­ally mem­bers of the in­sur­ance in­dus­try look­ing to limit ex­po­sure and man­u­fac­tur­ers who want to sell their prod­ucts.

And Bob Har­vey, CEO at the Greater Hous­ton Part­ner­ship, said Hous­ton will not stop do­ing what made it what it is.

“We’re al­ways look­ing at our de­vel­op­ment stan­dards,” Har­vey said in an in­ter­view on Bloomberg Tele­vi­sion. “Even with­out zon­ing, there are ways to do that, and that will con­tinue to hap­pen.”

One of the tough­est ques­tions, ac­cord­ing to

Bill Read, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter, is what to do about the tens of thou­sands of homes al­ready in the 100year flood­plain. Hous­ton’s me­dian home price last year was $230,000; buy­ing out a hy­po­thet­i­cal 50,000 homes would cost $11.5 bil­lion. Ac­quir­ing and de­mol­ish­ing ev­ery dam­aged struc­ture would cost more than $31 bil­lion.

Buy­outs on that scale are “just un­think­able,” Read said.

But Emmett, the Har­ris County judge, is think­ing about it. He said the gov­ern­ment should move “as soon as pos­si­ble” and said it would cost “bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars.”

“There’s no ques­tion we’re go­ing to have a largescale buy­out of houses in Har­ris County and in this en­tire re­gion,” he added.

But even many who rec­og­nize that Hous­ton’s lais­sez-faire ways have made it vul­ner­a­ble are loath to sug­gest change.

Ed­uardo Sanchez, pres­i­dent of Sanchez En­ergy Corp., a Hous­ton oil and gas ex­plo­ration com­pany, said “lax zon­ing re­quire­ments” make the city flood­prone by leav­ing lit­tle green space to ab­sorb rain­fall. Still, he said, “I’m not by any means en­cour­ag­ing that there be any re­form.”

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