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Harris County, Texas, Pursues Floodplain Violators After Imelda

Since Hurricane Harvey, the county has worked to improve flood management. Three months post-storm, the county passed stricter building rules, requiring some structures to be built up to 8 feet higher than the old rules.

by Zach Despart, Houston Chronicle / September 25, 2019

(TNS) — The Harris County Attorney’s office can quickly file lawsuits against homeowners and businesses that violate floodplain building rules under new authority granted by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

The county attorney’s office now can pursue civil suits for violations of county floodplain management regulations, such as inadequate elevation, fill in the floodplain and construction without a permit, without first seeking permission from Commissioners Court, a process that can cause delays of two to three weeks.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said lawsuits are necessary because in a fraction of cases, violators fail to respond to other enforcement strategies.

“In every case, we send letters, we send people to talk to these folks,” Soard said. “In a few cases, when they say, ‘take a hike,’ then we do need to go to court to get orders to stop.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the change is a signal the county no longer will be lenient with homeowners and businesses that knowingly violate rules intended to protect downstream neighborhoods from flooding. She said severe flooding by Tropical Storm Imelda last week, which the county engineer said swamped more than 800 homes in the unincorporated county, offered a reminder why the regulations are needed.

“If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of flooding and recovery, we must be able to use every tool we have at our disposal, including enforcement,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

The county approved $5 million to deal to deal with Imelda’s immediate effects at an emergency meeting last Friday. Court members also extended the county’s disaster declaration by two weeks.

The county judge’s office said violators include every category of land development, including homes and businesses, as well as utility districts and industrial, academic and religious facilities.

Since Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, Harris County has taken several steps to better manage flooding. Three months after the storm, Commissioners Court passed stricter building rules, which required some structures to be built up to eight feet higher than the old rules. This year, the county significantly expanded the area covered by those higher standards.

The county engineering department said it had identified and corrected 1,357 floodplain regulation violations since Harvey. An additional 611 cases remain open, and may need to be resolved through lawsuits.

The Engineering Department has added 10 new employees in the past year to help with enforcement. Recently, that team has sent an average of 15 cases per week to the county attorney.

County Engineer John Blount said lawsuits are an effective tool since Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 vetoed a bill that would allow counties to issue citations akin to parking tickets to floodplain rule violators. The governor said in a veto statement, “We need not create another crime, particularly one that is a moving target.”

The Harris County Flood Control District continues to make progress on its voter-approved $2.5 billion bond program. The court on Tuesday approved construction on 18 projects, including detention basins in the Addicks Reservoir, Cedar Bayou and Cypress Creek watersheds and channel improvements in the Brays, Sims and Cedar bayou watersheds.


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