In a meeting today, the Houston Planning Commission deferred automatic approval of the general plan for Orchard Seeded Ranches by taking the item off the consent agenda. The Commission then asked the developer to consult with the City Engineer; the Planning and Development Department; and Harris County Flood Control before bringing further requests back to the Commission.
Taking the item off today’s consent agenda should send a strong signal to the developer that rough waters lie ahead. Any proposal will likely be debated publicly when/if the developer returns.
History of Project
Last year, Romerica filed a permit application to build 5,000 condos and several high-rises up to 50 stories tall on 331 acres near the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. After a record number of people and groups filed protests with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps withdrew the application. But now the developer is back – with a different name – Orchard Seeded Ranches. However, Harris County Appraisal District indicates that the same people still own the land.
Location of Property
For orientation, the developed area in the middle is the Barrington. The line down the west side is Woodland Hills Drive. And the river at the bottom is the West Fork.
Filing a “general plan” like this is the first step in developing property. The developer has not yet submitted detailed plats showing construction details.
Virtually Entire Development in Floodway or Floodplain
About half of the Orchard Seeded Ranches lies in the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. FEMA defines floodways as the main current of a river during a flood. In the map below, that includes everything beneath the red line.
Virtually all of the purple area above the red line lies in the floodplain. FEMA defines a floodplain as “storage” for water during a flood. That means water covers the land without moving rapidly.
I created the map above by combining the area to be developed with the FEMA flood map below.
Wetlands Issues Also Abound
Every part of the proposed development contains wetlands to some extent.
US Fish and Wildlife documented another eagle’s nest on the developer’s property. And the Balcom family, which lives near the western edge of the developer’s property, regularly photographs eagles from their balcony.
What’s in a Name
The name sounds as if the development would be lower density than the 50-story high-rises previously planned. But you never know. In the development business, names often have more evocative than literal significance. Look at the Houston Heights. Bridgeland (on the prairie). Mount Houston. You get the idea.
Whatever the development is, when and if the developer returns to the Planning Commission, we should not forget that:
- Eagles live here, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service strenuously objected to the previous development.
- Harvey inundated the areas near the river to a depth of 23 feet.
- The Balcom house west of River Grove had to sink piers 25 feet down before reaching stable ground.
- Evacuations will be a consideration during floods as Hamblen and Woodland Hills typically go underwater.
- Deed restrictions limit use of the land to “single family residential.”
- When floodplain maps are redrawn using Atlas-14 data, that floodway will likely expand significantly.
A Less Risky, Less Costly Alternative
All of these factors will increase the risk and cost of any development.
The safest, sanest course for the developer – before putting more money at risk –would be to meet with community representatives about:
- Purchasing this land
- Putting a conservation easement on it
- Letting it revert to nature and turning it into park land
Harris County Flood Control District has $175 million allocated in the flood bond for partnership projects with “Municipalities, Authorities, and Other Districts in Harris County.” See item Z100-00-00-MUNI.
That money could help purchase such property and turn it into green space forever. KSA, the Lake Houston Chamber, civic leaders and residents should get behind that idea. Judging by the response to Romerica’s last offering, it’s clear that residents would much rather see this area turned into parks than see the San Jacinto turn it into blight.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/30/2020
975 Days after Hurricane Harvey