It’s Not the Zoning, It’s the MUD
Note: If you can, give a bit of support to the folks in Houston. I would recommend the Red Cross.
I woke up this morning to the devastating news about Hurricane Harvey and the pummeling that Houston is taking from mother nature. As a native Houstonian (annexation counts right?) we grew up with the threat of hurricanes and floods, the closest to me personally coming in 1994 when 20-30 inches of water dropped in a few days and led to a lot of homes in my part of the city getting flooded including those of close family friends.
So this morning on twitter Pro Publica, which wrote an amazing piece with the Texas Tribune recently about the dangers of potential flooding in Texas, was writing a twitter thread on the subject but said something rather odd. They blamed a lot of things but one of them was Houston’s lack of zoning, saying how it caused a push for more sprawl.
3/ Climate change plays a role. So does Houston’s utter lack lack of zoning, and relentless development in flood-prone areas.
— ProPublica (@ProPublica) August 27, 2017
Folks that read this blog probably know that Houston lacks “zoning” BUT it still has everything bad you need for zoning in the development code, it’s just not use based.
And all the discussion got me thinking about what does lead to sprawling land uses in Texas that gobble up precious natural riparian zones. There are a lot of things, but lack of “zoning” is not one of them. But I can think of two…
In my mind there are two major culprits that have created the massive sprawling unplanned morass that is Houston outside of the 610 Loop and have contributed to some of the flood woes happening as a result of Hurricane Harvey, though honestly I don’t know if you can actually plan for 30-50 inches of rain in two days.
The first is the Municipal Utility District (MUD), a special district that allows developers to sell bonds for development anywhere outside of a recognized jurisdiction and second is transportation policy.
I’m sure MUDs exist in other places but they don’t seem to be as prolific as they are around the suburbs of Houston. The basic idea of a MUD is that it’s a way for developers to buy land and set up shop to build new development. Once they own the land they can request the creation of a MUD that allows them to sell tax exempt bonds for infrastructure. An amazing Houston Chronicle article from 2016 points to their Houston specific popularity.
There are 1,751 active water districts in Texas, a class of special purpose districts tracked by TCEQ, ranging from large river authorities to tiny irrigation districts, including 949 MUDs, according to the state.
The epicenter of water district financing: Houston’s suburbs.
Forty-four percent of those 1,751 districts are in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Sixty-five percent of the 949 MUDs are in those three counties – 389 in Harris County, 146 in Fort Bend County and 85 in Montgomery County.
So if a developer can just plop down anywhere in the county and build a massive development of single family homes, it stands to reason that regional drainage and water networks are not a top planning priority. And in fact one of the jokes at planning school was “In the ETJ, no one can hear you scream.” Because in areas just outside of cities (extra territorial jurisdiction) planning is severely limited.
Not only that! A recent court case found that cities can’t enforce building codes in their ETJs. So no, it’s not a zoning problem. And in the most recent state legislative session, annexation has been limited as well. So many things stack up against good environmental rules.
It’s most interesting because The Woodlands, which is now 11 MUDs operated under a joint powers agreement, was home to some of the most innovative thinking on the subject of environment and housing development when it’s first section was designed by Ian McHarg. Research has shown though that his approach was abandoned by a number of factors.
Primarily by literature review, this paper indicated that early development that followed McHarg’s approach has met the original planning goals to preserve the forest environment and to minimize the development impacts on watershed hydrology. McHarg’s approach was largely abandoned after the ownership change in 1997. Barriers came from each side of the development: homeowner (demand), developer (provider), designer (professional service) and government (policy-maker).
What’s upsetting about this is that people probably were pushing the good hydrology planning aside so they could make money, when George Mitchell, a Texas oilman who’s land McHarg was working with was sold on the fact that he would save $18M by using the areas natural drainage systems instead of having to build their own storm drain system. It didn’t hurt that they got a $50m HUD grant to try this out either.
McHarg sold Mitchell on green because of the economic benefits. But the environmental strategy was important too.
McHarg’s strategy called for, first, the use of natural drainage systems to control storm water; second, the minimum clearing of native vegetation; and third, limited use of impervious surfaces.
This is important because I can’t tell you the amount of times I saw signs when leaving my own Woodland’s like development of Kingwood and right at the border seeing land that had been forest for sale with a big sign that said “improved land: ready to build” with all the trees that had been there before wiped off the plot completely. It was so sad, but also had a negative effect on drainage and natural systems.
Now if we step back a bit, this development is still cul-de-sac sprawl. Just more environmentally friendly. It is my belief that land preservation is best done by developing more in the core and leaving the prairies and forests to themselves. But if more of Houston had developed like the first phase of The Woodlands, it would be much better off today, even during a historic rainstorm.
It also makes it that much more ironic that The Woodlands is now home to Exxon’s headquarters, which escaped downtown Houston, I imagine to be closer to where the executives lived in a forested green bliss.
I’m not going to say much about transportation policy except to note that all of the MUDs that were built up were allowed to because of regional road development. When I was little my family always joked that the freeways in Houston were always under construction because there was only one guy working at a time. One orange vest could only do so much.
But Houston as a region is currently working on it’s 3rd ring road and has made it a point of developing these roads to open up areas to development. The most recent example being the Grand Parkway, which organizations such as Houston Tomorrow have fought vociferously. The Grand Parkway now looks like an even worse decision considering it’s now opening up the Katy prairie land to more development, area that should really be left to it’s natural state.
There’s a whole other conversation to be had about urban drainage, flood insurance, and FEMA in all cities, but I’ve covered that before as a podcast you can listen to below. My two guests are fascinating and it really puts how we treat water in urban areas in perspective.
So even if Houston had zoning, it doesn’t matter much. All that would happen is flood plain areas would be zoned R1 and would be given FEMA protection if they are outside of a certain area the maps get wrong anyway.
But all of these MUDs were created outside the city, they are funneling water by way of impervious cover into streams and creeks and rivers at a faster rate than would have happened if the water was allowed to sink into the land along the way. Because of the way Texas operates, I just don’t see how any of this gets fixed before the next storm, especially since the state really likes telling cities what to do.