December 8, 2020

City and County Should Approve Purchase of Land to Protect Elm Grove

City and County Should Approve Purchase of Land to Protect Elm Grove

Many of you will recall the heartbreaking flooding in the Elm Grove subdivision in Kingwood twice in the span of five months last year.  Although part of the subdivision was built in the 100-year flood plain, it had never flooded previously.  Many blamed the flooding on the work done to prepare a site just north of Elm Grove for a new subdivision by Perry Homes.  I visited the area shortly after both floods and concluded that was likely the case (see post here).

After about a year of haggling and litigation, the City and Harris County have reached a deal with Perry Homes to purchase the property for $14 million.  After the purchase it will be used for flood detention and green space.  Despite the hefty price tag, this is absolutely the right thing to do and City Council and the  Commissioners’ Court should approve the sale.

Kudos for getting this done go to Kingwood flood watchdog, Bob Rehak, and Elm Grove Civic Club president, Beth Guide.  Both have tirelessly advocated for the Elm Grove flood victims.  I do not think this would have happened had they not kept this issue in front of the elected officials.

Some have criticized the proposed deal as a bailout of Perry Homes, whose principals are generous campaign donors, of a project that should never have been built.  According to this Houston Chronicle story, City flood czar, Steven Costello, the City and County are only paying Perry Homes its cost of the property.  However, I find that claim somewhat incredulous considering that the current value on the Montgomery County tax rolls is under $2 million.

Nonetheless, this is still the right thing to do because even at this price, the long-term benefit to the area affected will far outweigh the cost.  This $14 million will provide protection for over $100 million in homes.

However, the Elm Grove travail should be a guide for how we handle flood issues in the future.  For far too long, our relatively lax flood rules have allowed development to be shoe-horned into areas like this where the collateral flood problems they would cause were predictable.

The knee-jerk reaction to this problem is to pass onerous new rules restricting development, as the City and County have done with their 2-feet over the 500-year flood plain requirement.  While certainly some tightening of the rules was overdue, strict rules like the 2-feet/500-year rule place a heavy burden on property owners for what has fundamentally been a failure of government policy.  Such rules also disproportionately affect lower income neighborhoods where flooding is more common, and the residents have less financial ability to comply.  However, landowners with more resources generally find a way to skirt the rules.

A better course would be to combine better restrictions (but less onerous than the 2-feet/500-year rule) with aggressive and proactive property purchases.  When I was studying the flooding problems during the last campaign I saw, literally, hundreds of properties that were candidates to be purchased and permanently dedicated as green space for both recreation and flood control.  In the final analysis more balanced approach would reduce flooding, provide park space and enhance property values and, therefore, the tax base – without destroying neighborhoods.

Winston Churchill has been credited for saying that “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”1  That is about the way I feel about this deal.  If the City and County had been out proactively buying properties for flood control, this one could have most likely been bought for a fraction of the proposed price . . . and hundreds of families would have most likely been spared being flooded . . . twice.


Note 1 – There is some dispute about whether Churchill is actually responsible for this quote.  – See Quote Investigator

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