Before Hurricane Harvey, developers “gerrymandered” flood maps

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Anadarko Tower in The Woodlands, TX
ANADARKO TOWER IN THE WOODLANDS, TX / PHOTO: JOEL OLIVES (CC BY 2.0)

Developers in the Woodlands worked around federal flood risk mapping to create “gerrymandered maps of risk,” allowing them to build homes on floodplains.

The New York Times unravels how it went down in the wake of Hurricane Harvey when hundreds of homes in newer developments in the Woodlands flooded.

The story allows that developers did not break any laws, but they did make sure that by hauling in tons of dirt to raise ground levels, the areas could avoid flood-prone status. The buyer could then be assured that expensive flood insurance — which could be a deterrent to budget-minded buyers — was not needed.

In October, residents from the affected developments of Timarron Lakes and Creekside Park Village petitioned the municipal utility district, which is part of the flood management infrastructure, to stop collecting taxes for recreational facilities, which are part of bonds that are issued for the residential developments, and instead dedicate that money to flood prevention.

The epic storm that was Harvey flooded areas that had never seen standing water before. It also gave rise for the first time in years that the tri-county area around Houston — composed of Harris, Montgomery, and Fort Bend Counties — may have glossed over some of the potential issues that come from building on a floodplain.

The Texas Monitor and other publications have documented the conduct of developers to get deals done for housing enclaves in the wealthy areas of the region, including planting voters on undeveloped land that for the purposes of voting.

The voters they select sometimes come from far parts of the state, and the developers and their law firms are confident that those voters, usually two or three people, will elect their own candidates to issue tax-free bonds, which is repaid through charges made to future residents.

While several developers operate in the reaches of Montgomery County, the aggrieved Woodlands residents live in homes built by Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp., a publicly traded company that counts the Woodlands as a key part of its land holding portfolio.

In a third-quarter earnings call, Hughes president Grant Herlitz told analysts there was a 42 percent increase in new home sales in the Woodlands.

“The median new home price decreased from $578,000 to $450,000 for the quarter compared to last year,” he said, and people are buying. “As of September 30, there were 307 residential lots under contract in The Woodlands, of which 73 are scheduled to close in fourth quarter for a total of $11.6 million.”

Some have surmised that overdevelopment in the Houston area has made it more flood-prone as wetlands are paved over, as in the case profiled by the Times.

The Times story, coupled with a movement to make the Woodlands a city, could impact the plans of Hughes. Residents plan to make their case regarding a change in government at the Woodlands Township board meeting on Wednesday.

“This would give the residents a full say in what goes on here and how things are taken care of,” said Paul Lazzaro, a Woodlands resident. He spent a decade as vice-president of marketing and public affairs for the Woodlands Development Company, a previous owner of the Woodlands.

“Right now, Hughes owns it as an entity,” Lazzaro said. “If we become a city, they then become beholden to us. The resident.”

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