After hurricane harvey, friendswood residents shocked by plan to build shopping center in floodway – houston chronicle database operations

The city reverted to the 20-year-old maps in December, saying it would help residents avoid expensive requirements to elevate their homes. People in mapped flood plains whose homes are deemed substantially damaged generally have to elevate if they choose to rebuild, under requirements of the federal flood insurance program.

The older maps have smaller flood plains. By adopting them, city council members shrank the areas where the strictest elevation requirements apply. Had they not taken that step, they’d effectively be forcing flood-ravaged residents to abandon their homes, Morad Kabiri, then the assistant city manager, warned council in December. Many could not afford the $150,000 to $250,000 it can take to elevate.

Similarly, if the Westover project were controlled by the 2007 maps, its location in the floodway would subject it to strict regulations that would pose enormous obstacles to development.

Under the older maps, it is outside the floodway and many of those obstacles don’t apply.

“The city affirms that all laws, rules, policies, and procedures were followed,” Ray Viada, an attorney the city hired to handle the issue, said in an emailed statement. “The city continues to do all it can to help residents who suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey to recover with a combination of local, state and federal assistance. It is unfortunate that threatened litigation is a distraction from those efforts.”

Emails between city officials, the original landowner and an engineering firm involved in the project — obtained by Johnson under the Texas Public Information Act — don’t demonstrate whether the project had any influence on Kabiri’s recommendation to revert to the old maps.

When Kabiri, who is now the city manager, first briefed the council on the map issue in October, he noted that even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers flood insurance, did not recognize the 2007 maps for the purpose of issuing flood policies in Friendswood. That was one reason city staff concluded homeowners shouldn’t be forced to elevate under the 2007 standards, Kabiri said.

Regardless of the intent, the result is the same: Because the city adopted older maps, the Westover site is no longer technically in the floodway, even though more advanced maps, created in 2007 with laser-mapped topography and newer rainfall data, show that it is.

The floodway is the area of swiftly flowing water at the center of the flood plain, the area inundated in a rainfall that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Structures in the floodway cause the overall flood level to rise, and force water to pile up behind the obstacle, like a dam.

Johnson discovered the dirt trucked to the Westover site was coming from a nearby excavation that is part of a Harris County Flood Control District project, the South Belt Stormwater Detention Basin. He marveled at why the district, which recognizes the 2007 maps, would allow its dirt to end up in a floodway.

The district requires its contractors to disclose what they plan to do with excavated dirt, so that the dirt doesn’t end up back in the flood plain. In this case, the contractor, submitting plans to dump dirt at the Westover location, used paperwork showing the 1999 flood maps. The district engineer who signed off on the plan didn’t consult the 2007 maps, Zeve said.

City records show that Wood’s permit to place fill dirt on his property was signed by a city official in November — a month before city council reverted to the 1999 maps. If that’s the case, the city should have rejected it because it was still in the floodway under the maps in effect at the time, Johnson argues. City regulations also prohibit fill in the floodway.

Johnson and other residents also object on environmental grounds. They’re worried the dirt could be contaminated because it was excavated near a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, where the defunct Brio Refining Inc. dumped toxic materials from 1950 to 1982. A neighborhood and its school had to be abandoned.

Soil and water sampling by the flood control district at the Stormwater detention site near Brio showed toxic metals including arsenic and lead, but at concentrations no higher than typical background levels for Texas. The district’s environmental consultant concluded there had been no contamination from Brio.

He said he and other residents are rejecting the old notion that unchecked growth is inevitable. They join people elsewhere in the region who are increasingly skeptical that builders can engineer their way out of floods, instead favoring policies that reserve open spaces for public use and, critically, for the discharge of floodwaters.