With a new development of hundreds of homes in the middle of a floodplain underway in northwest Houston, Houston City Council kicked a plan to create a municipal utility district in that soon-to-be neighborhood up to Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday without any discussion.
Referring it to the Turner administration instead of voting on it will allow officials to further vet the project and make sure enough is being done to mitigate the risk of flooding — but at this point nothing is stopping the developers from building there. At a time when thousands of homeowners living in or near floodplains are inquiring about buyouts with city and county agencies, up to 800 homes are slated to be built on land that used to be the Pine Crest Golf Club — located in a 100-year floodplain in areas nearest the Brickhouse Gully, which runs through it. Southern and western areas of the block of land — whose boundaries are Clay, Gessner and Kemp Forest roads — are in a 500-year floodplain.
The Department of Public Works and Engineering has already approved permits for the development, and in fact officials and the developer, Meritage Homes, say there was an agreement to exceed the minimum required standards for building in a floodplain. But Turner said Wednesday he wanted Public Works to "take a second look."
"Even if my staff says we looked at it and we're fine, I got that, but in the post-Harvey era, when we are talking about building in the 100-year floodplain, what I have said previously is we can't do things the same way and expect a different result. I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, even if I'm being extra cautious on it."
The developers, MetroNational and Meritage Homes, purchased the land last year. Brent Anderson, spokesman for Meritage Homes, said the development will move forward whether or not the City of Houston gives a stamp of approval for the future neighborhood's new municipal utility district. He said that, knowing developers would be building in a floodplain, the type of extra precautions Turner described were taken from the start.
"We put the project together with the expertise and input of some of the best engineers and developers in the country, and so all of those considerations were taken into account even before Hurricane Harvey hit, and of course since then, understanding that there's a heightened sense of diligence that's to be expected on a development project that's that close to Houston central," Anderson said. "We fully intend to develop the community. It's a great location. It will be a great community for people who want to move into that area, really without a fear of being flooded."
Anderson said the primary flood-prevention mechanism will be elevating the homes so that they are built above the floodplain levels. According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre-feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn't approved, these bonus items won't be possible.
Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there's still a risk of "overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events," which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.
"The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed," Zeve said in an email.
Public Works did not respond to a request before press time regarding what will be further vetted at the mayor's request.
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Stardig said Mayor Turner did not agree to put the MUD creation item on the City Council agenda until developers had her support — which unfolded only over the past week, after developers agreed not to build multi-family dwellings rather than single-family.
That time crunch rubbed at least one council member, Mike Knox, the wrong way. Knox said that he and others were not even aware until this week about the plans to develop in the floodplain and the creation of the MUD. The problem, he said, was that the item moved across City Council's plate too quickly, leaving little to no room for residents near the development and especially downstream from it to voice their complaints before the vote.
"There are still questions about what this construction is going to do to the floodplain around the area, what impact it's going to have on surrounding communities," Knox said. "The communities surrounding this proposed project did not have the opportunity to raise an objection. And so I made it be known that I would vigorously oppose this particular plan because it violates my thought that government should be open and transparent and shouldn't be sneaking things past the voters."
It's unclear how the delay on Wednesday on the approval of the MUD will affect the project — Anderson, the Meritage Homes spokesman, said he was unsure himself. The MUD creation is also a ballot item right now —even though only two people who would actually benefit from the MUD are living on that land. They are MUD board members, according to an email from MetroNational, and are living in trailers on the former golf course. If the city does not approve the MUD before November 7, Knox said it's likely their votes won't matter anyway.