Recovery

Relaxed Rules in Flood Plain Help Homeowners, but Could Have Consequences Later

The situation shows that when local authorities relax flood plain requirements after flood disasters, often in a well-meaning attempt to help people recover, it can open the door to development in high-risk areas.

by Mark Collette, Houston Chronicle / June 14, 2018

(TNS) - A post-Hurricane Harvey flood map change in Friendswood, aimed at helping residents avoid expensive home elevations, could have aided up to 57 homes in the city of about 40,000 people, a Houston Chronicle analysis found. At the same time, the change allowed preparations for a shopping center to be built in a floodway.

The situation shows that when local authorities relax flood plain requirements after flood disasters, often in a well-meaning attempt to help people recover, it can open the door to development in high-risk areas.

When the city council made the map change, they billed it as necessary to prevent waterlogged homeowners from abandoning or selling their homes at steep losses. Elevating homes can cost as much as $150,000 to $200,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house. By reverting to older maps that show those homes outside the flood plain, they effectively removed the elevation requirement imposed by the federal flood insurance program.

They also said homeowners in those situations had been unaware they should buy flood insurance, because the federal government had been using the older maps for the purposes of underwriting. It was unfair to ask them to pay for elevation based on the 2007 maps when they didn’t even have insurance because of the federal government’s use of older maps, city officials said.

Shawn Johnson, an attorney who lives near the shopping center project and is fighting it, said the city shouldn’t have done a wholesale flood map change to aid so few people.

“If they didn’t elevate they are going to flood again,” he said. “This isn’t good public policy.”

In an emailed statement, City Manager Morad Kabiri said it would be inappropriate for city staff to opine on the wisdom of the decision, which council unanimously approved in December.

“Over a three-month period … members of the Friendswood City Council gathered information and carefully considered all facets of reverting to the 1999 flood maps,” Kabiri said. “They determined reverting was in the best interest of the citizens.”

Kabiri said the city is reviewing new, preliminary flood maps issued by the federal government in February and considering when to adopt new maps.

Newly elected Mayor Mike Foreman, who voted for the change as a council member in December, did not return a message seeking comment.

The controversial Parkwood Plaza shopping center project near Clear Creek is in a floodway - the riskiest part of the flood plain - under the 2007 maps. But the city granted the developer a permit to place fill dirt on the property, recognizing the 1999 maps, which show it is not in the floodway. Johnson said the city’s outside counsel has indicated it may now declare that permit invalid because it was granted before the city council reverted to the old map.

The Harris County Flood Control District approved placement of fill dirt on the site by mistake, relying on the old maps, said Matthew Zeve, director of operations. It’s now trying to get the property owner to allow removal of the dirt. If that doesn’t work, the district will mitigate the fill dirt by excavating elsewhere in the flood plain, he said.

A district analysis shows that the fill dirt will have almost no impact on flood levels - about a hundreth of a foot. But the cumulative effect of building multiple projects in the floodway can be significant, Zeve said.

Johnson said he hopes council is considering re-adopting the newer flood map so the city can prevent or better regulate future development in the flood plain. Any of the homeowners helped by the map change have likely already proceeded with rebuilding, he said.

City officials have not said precisely how many people managed to avoid elevation as a result of the map change.

The Chronicle’s analysis used a city list of 114 substantially damaged properties, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. Those properties incurred more than 50 percent damage, which would trigger the elevation requirement. The Chronicle then used the 1999 and 2007 maps to determine that 57 substantially damaged homes were in areas affected by the map change.

They represent a likely upper limit: Each of those homes may or may not have been aided by the map change depending on the specific elevation and location of each property. A previous Chronicle analysis identified up to 300 homes that flooded and were in the area where the maps changed, but it did not take into account which ones were substantially damaged.

Kabiri declined to comment on the latest analysis, but said that an accurate determination of the number of homeowners who received a benefit from the map change would require a detailed inspection inside each home. He did not elaborate. Homeowners would have to grant permission for such inspections and the city has not sought that permission, he said.

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