Out of Control

The City of Houston requires developers in the floodplain to elevate and mitigate -- build houses on higher ground and dig detention ponds for runoff. Except, not always.

Nearly half the opinions expressed were directed at what many consider the "systemic problem" of unfettered development in the city's floodplains. One respondent to Loomis's questionnaire demanded "stricter guidelines" for developers. Another wrote "no building in the 100-year floodplain," echoing a respondent who wanted the city to prohibit the "placement of fill in the floodplain." One person asked that the city's floodplain management office "consider the economic impact of such fill/construction on existing development."

Culp says it's unlikely the city will heed those suggestions. "In a place like Houston, restricting development to places outside the floodplain would make it virtually impossible to develop anything," he says. "So I don't think our legislative officials are going to make that decision."

Perhaps not, but one of them may be starting to see the light. Three years ago, District A Councilman Bruce Tatro was vilified by residents of Timbergrove Manor and Shady Acres for sponsoring the East T.C. Jester extension and Baxter's development project. But prompted by residents who were flooded by Tropical Storm Allison, Tatro has started to drive a harder bargain on development in the White Oak floodplain. Last July, the councilman sent a request through public works director Rolen for specifics on the storm-water detention planned for the T.C. Jester Apartments.

Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Michael Stravato
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Deron Neblett
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.

By October, Tatro, frustrated by the lack of a satisfactory response, was criticizing the floodplain management office every week at the council's "pop-off" session. Finally, in late November, Tatro threatened to use his authority to withhold Gross's occupancy permit. Meanwhile, the Press wasn't having any better luck with the developer's detention plan, which Loomis approved back in August 2000.

At the time, the developer told the city he would excavate an empty lot upstream, just west of the Retreat at City Park apartments. However, at some point after that -- Gross didn't return the Press's calls -- the developer started claiming he had already taken 22,000 cubic yards from an eight-acre tract owned by the flood control district. The district leases the land, a ball field complex that is home to the Timbergrove Little League, to the Retreat for use as a storm-water detention pond.

But as recently as three weeks ago, Tom Moody, the Retreat's drainage engineer, said he knew nothing about other developers using the ball field as detention. When informed of that, Culp -- under pressure from Tatro as well -- launched an "investigation" into Gross's storm-water detention.

On December 10, after several meetings and discussions with the developers' engineering consultants, Culp provided the Press with a simple, two-column ledger that indicates three developers -- Gross, Baxter and Perry Homes -- are claiming storm-water detention capacity at the ball field. According to the figures, which were prepared by the consultants, the sports complex has already been lowered five feet, with another two feet to be excavated in the near future. That was enough for Culp to declare that the mystery of Gross's detention had been solved.

"The only obligation the city really had in this process is to make sure on paper the balance works out," Culp says. "And we've done that."

Tatro isn't so sure. He says the numbers, which supposedly reflect how much fill each developer brought in and how much came off the ball field as detention, don't add up. And even if they did, the councilman wonders why the math wasn't done before Gross received his building permit almost 18 months ago.

"What really ticks me off is a plan was submitted, and there was no data to show the developer was going to excavate what he said he would," Tatro says. "This is all being done in hindsight."

The only way to verify the validity of what's on paper is to examine the relevant site plans, grading layouts and topographical surveys. Because of their technical nature, the Press lined up a professional engineer willing to examine the documents to determine how much fill had been placed on the development sites and whether something close to an equal amount of storm-water detention had been excavated from the ball field.

But while Culp expressed no qualms about providing copies of that information in his first interview with the Press, he declined on December 10, claiming the city legal department had declared certain building plans "copyrighted material" and therefore not subject to disclosure under the Texas Open Records Act. Culp agreed to allow a reporter to look over the site plans and grading layouts in Loomis's office -- access, he says, the city's attorneys had warned him not to provide.

"They didn't even want to give [the plans] to us," Culp says.

To the untrained eye, the plans were, to say the least, inconclusive. Even more puzzling were two attorney general opinions, dated 1981 and 1987. While both opinions discourage the city from furnishing copies of material protected by copyright -- assuming, of course, that building plans are copyright-protected in the first place -- they both clearly permit members of the public to make their own copies, "unassisted" by the government agency. The city did not immediately respond to a second request by the Press to make "unassisted" copies of the documents.

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