Mitigating Climate Risk in Harris County, TX – The Problem with Being a First Mover

Harvey appears to have gotten the attention of some of our local policymakers. Harris County appears to be the first to realize that Harvey is likely not to be a once-in-a-lifetime event and significant steps should be taken to mitigate climate risk.

Fulshear, TX

There has been some question as to how our elected officials would respond to Harvey in regards to long-term rebuilding efforts and reducing the likelihood of future flooding. There had been a call by some developers, even before Hurricane Harvey was over, to keep moving down the same road with business as usual. Also, the region’s previous responses to other recent flooding events did not provide a lot of hope that much would happen in regards to land-use and development regulations.

However, on December 5th, Harris County Commissioners approved new regulations for floodplain development. The new regulations include requirements for pier and beam foundations and for homes to be built at a higher elevation in some flood-prone areas. Also, it requires that new construction is built at a 500-year standard rather than the current 100-year storm standard.  There is also a high-wind standard in place for new construction.

There are some question as to what the impact these new regulations will have. New construction in Harris County is likely to be a bit more expensive as builders build up. This could be higher development costs to build up the land in the area with fill dirt and/or to build homes to a higher elevation. All of this is cost will be passed on to the homeowners. There will be some tolerance by homeowners for this premium to have greater peace of mind, but only so much tolerance. What is also likely to happen is that some developers will choose not to build in Harris County and move on to other nearby counties. Residents will decide how far out builders can go.  Commuting time and congestion will limit the movement away.

Did Harris County Jump the Gun?

It is great to see Harris County take a leadership position and pass regulations to mitigate against flooding and wind events. However, did they get too far out ahead of the other counties and local jurisdictions? Harris County is just one part of a large region.  Will being a first mover in land-use regulations be an advantage for the County? If the surrounding counties do not take similar action, does Harris County regulatory activity push development out?  Professor Festa at the South Texas College of Law suggests that these regulations would be a disincentive to build in Harris County and would lead to urban sprawl. Should Waller, Fort Bend and Montgomery County expect a development boom?

This may be the case. Those that are typically not supportive of development regulations did not appear to push back too much. Some builders say housing costs will go up a bit to meet elevation standards and the costs will be passed on to customers. The assumption here is that customers are willing to take on some additional costs for peace of mind. However, could another reason for minimal pushback be that developers feel they can move on to these other counties with minimal risk to their business? There is a significant amount of development already happening in these surrounding counties and residents are quickly following. Fulshear is a great example. With the new expansion of  Farm-to-Market Road 1093, the infrastructure is there to move a lot of people to Fort Bend County.

Beyond the direct economic implications of losing development to surrounding counties, a second issue is that working in isolation does not solve the upstream flooding problems. If more development is pushed north and west. There will be more impermeable surfaces surrounding Harris County which may result in greater flooding risk to the county and further downstream. All of these bayous and rivers are interconnected; water flows in this region from the northwest to the southeast. Shrinking the permeable surface around Harris County is not good for Harris County. That is why there is such a push for the third reservoir and to conserve much of the remaining Katy Prairie.

I applaud Harris County for taking these steps. They have realized more quickly than the rest of the region that Harvey type flooding is not a one-off event and action must be taken.  However, they cannot be successful and our region cannot thrive if the regulatory activity takes place in isolation. Mitigating storm risk, whether it is flooding, extreme heat, hurricanes, etc, must be done at the regional scale. The interdependencies of our economic and natural systems are too great not to act together.




Published by

Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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