Houston's Zoning - don't throw the baby out with the floodwater!

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Dr. John Jacob, Bayou City Waterkeeper Board Chair, Director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program and Professor with the Texas A&M penned a discussion on Houston's land-use regulations - and how it affected the impacts of Hurricane Harvey.

This story was originally published by Texas A&M's Texas Watershed Coastal Program and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Zoning–don’t throw out the baby with the floodwater!

11 September 2017 - John Jacob

Were the impacts of Harvey in Houston a result of no zoning in the city of no limits? This assertion seems to be the catch-all phrase used by Houston’s detractors for all that was exposed by Harvey in terms of planning or the lack thereof.  On the other hand, critics of regulation like to point out that zoned cities fared just as badly as Houston during Harvey. Our Mayor famously said that “zoning wouldn’t have changed anything. We would have been a city with zoning that flooded.”

Zoning and the lack of zoning have colored discussions about how Houston develops for over a hundred years. Zoning is a veritable lightning rod for animated discussions about development in our city. Zoning has detractors from various sides. There are those who decry any kind of controls on development, and to them zoning would be the absolute worst kind of regulation.  On the other hand, zoning has its detractors amongst the new urban cognoscenti, who consider zoning as an impediment to the mixed-use walkability that defines livable cities.

But just what do people mean when they say zoning?  Do they perhaps mean to say “land use regulations”?  I suspect that most of us who are not professional planners confuse the two terms and use them interchangeably. These terms are related, but they are not the same. Zoning is a subset of land use regulations. Zoning is about restriction or control of particular uses. This zone will be residential, that zone will be commercial, and this other zone will be industrial. Zoning is one kind of land use regulation. Zoning regulates density and uses. But it is not about development or no development.

Land use regulations, on the other hand, can prohibit development altogether in certain areas, such as flood plains, for example. A floodplain ordinance is not necessarily a “zoning” ordinance, but it is definitely a land use ordinance. A municipality could enact a single-focus ordinance regulating development in the floodplain without fear that such an ordinance could explode into full-fledged zoning. Cities with comprehensive plans and zoning could of course also enact a floodplain ordinance, and they could consider that ordinance as part of their overall zoning ordinance.

Limiting development in a floodplain in some sense is zoning. A certain kind of land is declared to some degree or another as unusable, in this case a floodplain. It is restricting something in a particular area or zone.  Therein lies the confusion. Municipalities in Texas have the police power to limit development in areas that they consider a threat to human health and safety. Many would argue, of course, that municipalities not only have the power, they have the obligation and responsibility to act on behalf of public health and safety.

There is sufficient volume in our floodways and floodplains (100 yr, 500yr, and more) to have handled a storm like Harvey. There is more than sufficient land outside of the floodplains for all the current and future projected development in Houston. There was nothing inevitable about the impacts from the flooding caused by Harvey. A floodplain ordinance early on in our history could have kept development out of the floodplains. Development outside of the floodplains could have proceeded as helter-skelter as Houston would have wanted.

So let’s ratchet back that comment from the Mayor. Let’s replace “zoning” with “floodplain ordinance”. Perhaps the Mayor could then have said this:  “A floodplain ordinance would have changed everything. We would have been a city with an ordinance that minimized who got flooded.”

So the Mayor and the critics of zoning were absolutely right. Zoning by itself would not have protected us from Harvey. But that does not mean regulatory intervention would not have protected us.  A strict floodplain ordinance is the baby that it would be a total shame to throw out with the floodwater.  Can we get that baby growing before the next “big one?”  We may not have to wait as long as we have previously thought.

 

Photo Credit: Patrick Feller - Old MKT Railroad Bridge over White Oak Bayou, near Studemont & I-10, Houston, Texas (30 Mar 2009)

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