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March 17, 2008

Dear Houstonian,

Many people living in the floodway have had questions about actions taken by City Council related to development in the floodway.

Background

Since 1968, Houston has prohibited construction in the floodway.  In 1985, the City of Houston changed the law to allow exemptions.  More than 20 years after the exemptions were allowed, engineers show that the cumulative effect of allowing individual building exceptions contributed to flooding. Currently, individual engineering analyses cannot accurately calculate the overall negative effects on our storm water conveyance. 

After numerous public meetings and hearings in 2006 City Council voted unanimously to close the loophole and not allow construction on unimproved property located in the floodways. The City does, through the issuance of building permits, allow existing businesses and homes in the floodway to add on a room, be improved, remodeled, renovated, or even increase a structure’s square footage. If a home or business is damaged or destroyed by fire, storms, or other acts of God, citizens can repair or rebuild it and increase the footprint of the previous structure provided it meets current building codes.

Who is in the floodway and who makes that decision? FEMA, working with the Harris County Flood Control District, uses the best available hydrologic and hydraulic modeling and mapping technology, and develops federally approved floodplain and floodway maps.  The City’s regulations are based on these maps.  FEMA’s maps are updated due to many factors such as the correction of errors, widening and deepening of bayous and tributaries, new development, subsidence, and improvement of storm drainage infrastructure.

How can the City reduce flooding? The City’s recent work to reduce flooding has resulted in real-world savings for Houston property owners through upgrades in the National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating System. These upgrades have saved homeowners millions of dollars in lower flood insurance premiums. We have invested $250 million in drainage improvements already completed or under way, and plan to invest a similar amount over the next 5-year Capital Improvement Plan cycle from FY09 through FY13, with no new fees.  Also, Council enacted new ordinances prohibiting the placement of construction fill into the floodway, requiring an increase in the diameter of new drainpipes, and strengthening development regulations for new subdivisions.

To repeat, the action taken by City Council continues to allow businesses and homeowners in our floodways to have options for their property when it is damaged or destroyed. People can maintain and improve their existing structures.  We are considering alternatives for those with vacant lots within the floodways to balance the interests of landowners and the public.

For more information on the requirements and answer frequently asked questions about Chapter 19, the City's Floodplain regulations, please see http://www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/documents/flood_plain.htm. For questions or comments regarding these ordinances, please email Public Works and Engineering at D’Ann.Marro@cityofhouston.net .

Sincerely,

Bill White
Mayor