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Confusion over flood hazard building rules at City Hall frustrating NW Houston residents

Neighbors of a proposed townhome development have tried to get answers from Houston officials for months.

HOUSTON — After Hurricane Harvey, Houston City Council voted to overhaul building regulations to better protect property and lives in flood hazard areas.

It was something Mayor Sylvester Turner proclaimed as a “defining, signature moment” in the city.

RELATED: City toughens rules for building homes after Harvey

But more than three years after its passage, one proposed development in northwest Houston appears to be getting around the stricter new building rules.

A group of concerned homeowners is complaining that oversight of the project has been riddled with dysfunction at City Hall.

RELATED: 'Packed their stuff and left' | Hurricane Harvey’s impact still evident in many areas nearly four years after flood

  • “At all levels in the city, there’s confusion,” George Frey said.
  • “It just doesn’t make sense. It defies logic,” Travis Brown said.
  • “A lot of red tape ... a lot of red tape,” Marie Carlisle said.

The homeowners and some neighbors in the Timbergrove Manor neighborhood have been trying to cut through the red tape for months. They’ve attended meeting after public meeting trying to get a basic question answered: Should a proposed 100-townhome development have to comply with the new ordinance, or is it grandfathered under the city’s old, weaker floodplain building rules.

The builder, Lovett Homes, filed the project’s application in August 2018, just weeks before the revised ordinance took effect in September 2018. But for nearly three years, the site at 12th Street and Ella Boulevard sat dormant with no activity.

Then, Lovett Homes changed the plans.

"They want to raise the lot three feet,” Brown said.

 A “notice of variance” mailed to homeowners in November 2021 included plans for a nearly three-foot retaining wall at the site. At a neighborhood meeting, a Lovett representative later confirmed its intention to build townhomes on slabs nearly three feet higher than everyone else.

“The risks that come from that are flooding out your neighbors,” Brown said.

“I’m very concerned that once they lift this property, that water will run into my backyard and flood my home,” Carlisle said.

Outside her backyard, Carlisle took video of truck after truck dumping fill dirt at the site, despite the new floodplain ordinance which clearly states “no fill shall be used as structural support of any structure.” Rather, new homes must be built on pilings or columns at least two feet higher than the federally-defined 500-year floodplain elevation.

Carlisle and others repeatedly complained to the city’s 311 helpline and inspectors issued multiple “red tags” to the property owner for not having proper fill/grade permits on file.

“Common sense is you change the plan, you lose the grandfathered status,” Carlisle said.

“We would expect that if you have a new plan, you should follow the new regulations ... the new ordinances that are in place,” Frey said.

That’s exactly what Managing City Engineer Richard Smith told them at a December neighborhood meeting over Zoom.

“They would be required to meet the current standard,” Smith said. “They would not be grandfathered in any way.”

But a top city official told KHOU 11 Investigates those comments were a mistake.

“Richard Smith misspoke, and I apologize for that. He clearly misspoke,” Houston Permitting Center Director Chris Butler said.

Butler acknowledged the bad information added to the confusion and frustration among homeowners seeking clarity on the issue.

“It does, and just as they’re frustrated, I’m frustrated that our staff are out there adding to the community’s frustration,” Butler said.

But the frustration at City Hall didn’t end there. Days after that managing city engineer misspoke, Turner himself chimed in at a city council meeting and pledged to have the city legal department examine the grandfather issue.

But four months later, the director of the permitting center conceded he received no word or legal guidance.

“City legal has not rendered an opinion on this,” Butler said.

The concerned homeowners in Timbergrove Manor were not surprised.

  • “It’s inconsistency at all levels,” Frey said.
  • “I think the right hand is not talking to the left hand,” Carlisle said.
  • “I would go so far to say that there’s a dereliction of duty for those public officials,” Brown said.

After all the mixed messaging and modifications to the plans, the mayor’s office provided the following statement:

"The vested rights statute in the Local Government Code requires that regulations apply only to permits sought after the regulation becomes effective and not those that were filed before the effective date. The legal department has looked at the project changes in detail and has carefully considered legal precedent regarding the vested rights statute. It has concluded that the character of the project for which the permit was sought has not changed. The result of this analysis is that the project continues to be governed by the regulations in effect at the time the original permit was filed, which pre-dated the new regulations."

In other words, the new development will in fact be grandfathered under the old, pre-Harvey building rules.

A spokesperson for Lovett Homes did not return repeated requests for comment.

 

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