Yesterday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting contained two separate discussions of vital interest for those worried about flooding in Elm Grove. Thankfully, the Commissioners post video of their meetings online so you can hear exactly what they had to say as well as how they said it.
The meeting went from 10am well into the evening hours. So you can go directly to the relevant portions, I’ve provided the timing code below. All are approximate. Here’s the link: https://harriscountytx.new.swagit.com/videos/62513. Make sure you go to Section V of the video.
County Discusses City’s Partial Adoption of Atlas-14 Standards
The first discussion lasts approximately 10 minutes from 5:20 to 5:30 into the video. It related to Item 1V on the agenda, the adoption of Atlas 14 standards by municipalities within Harris County.
At 5:20:07 John Blount, the county engineer, talks about adoption of Atlas 14. That was one of the original conditions that Commissioners placed on the purchase of the Perry property, i.e., that the City adopt a series of changes to floodplain and drainage regulations related to Atlas 14.
Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis uses that opening to introduce Elm Grove as a topic that wasn’t on the agenda. See Ellis at 5:21:25. He asks how we can get neighboring counties to participate.
At 5:22:29, Blount clarifies that the proposed rule changes would apply to the City’s ETJ (extra territorial jurisdiction. That includes most of southern Montgomery county. Blount explains why that’s important. “It’s about protecting our investment in projects so their benefits are not eroded.” He then clarifies that what the county proposes the City adopt is really “Best practices.”
Then, at 5:23:20, Ellis asks whether adoption of Atlas 14 will affect the prioritization of bond projects. Blount confirms it will.
At 5:24:50, Ellis asks whether City has already adopted Atlas 14. Blount explains the City adopted part but not all of the County’s recommendations. “They say they’re going to but they haven’t,” says Blount. “Adopting halfway isn’t helpful,” he says. “They need to adopt the whole thing…both storm-sewer sizing and detention-pond sizing.”
5:27:50 Hidalgo says “It’s about sustainable growth. We want to make sure we’re not flooding people downstream as we grow.”
5:29:50 Hidalgo transitions the discussion to buyouts and land conservation.
Intro to Discussion of Bond Costs and Elm Grove
The second important part for Elm Grove residents runs 42 mins. In this portion of the meeting, Ellis craftily draws Russ Poppe, executive director of Harris County Flood Control, into a discussion of cost escalation relating to flood bond projects. It later becomes clear when the discussion shifts to Elm Grove that Ellis worries the Perry purchase could consume so much money that it would delay or cancel Precinct One projects. This section runs roughly from 7:53 to 8:35.
If the narrative below sounds disjointed, that’s because it was. People kept interrupting each other. The discussion becomes heated. Ellis keeps repeating the same points over and over again as though his fellow commissioners are dullards and don’t get it.
Price Increases and Status of Bond Budget
At 7:53, Ellis queries Poppe about price increases for mitigation projects. Poppe explains that because of increase demand, the price of riprap is up 3X. Poppe also explains that “haul rates” have increased because they are now hauling dirt farther, i.e., beyond the 500-year flood plain. He says, “The biggest component of our costs is the excavation and hauling of dirt.”
7:56 Poppe talks about buyouts (Item 1B on the supplemental agenda). He talks about available funds, the process, number of homes bought out to date, and 400 applications “in process.”
Ellis Shifts Discussion to Perry Buyout
7:58:10 Ellis raises issue of Perry Homes’ Woodridge Village buyout in Montgomery County.
7:58:30 Ellis talks about original conditions for purchase: City would adopt Atlas 14 including inside its ETJ, that Montgomery County would also adopt Atlas 14, and that the City would contribute assets equal to half of the purchase price. He then estimates that the cost of additional detention ponds on the property could range from $20 – 30 million. Poppe confirms that as accurate.
7:59:30 Ellis adds up component costs: $14 million to acquire, possibly $30 million to develop. “That’s $44 million,” he almost shouts as he leans into the camera.
Ellis Proposes New Condition to Purchase
At 7:59:51 Ellis proposes a new condition to the sale. He wants the county’s offer to Perry to now say that half of development costs must also be covered by the City…not just the half of the purchase price. He also says that the City must actually adopt the Atlas 14 requirements in their entirety, not just “promise to adopt them” at some point in the future. Finally, he wants the Atlas 14 requirements to apply to the City’s extra territorial jurisdiction.
He wants a 50:50 split of ALL costs and wants the City to put up assets to purchase and develop the land.
He wants City assets put up before the purchase so that development of the land won’t be in limbo.
He makes a motion clarify the offer. Garcia seconds the motion.
8:06:48 Cagle reminds people that the offer has already been sent to Perry. He says the letter went out without any requirement about the City’s participation in future development of the property.
Argument Over Past/Future Tense in Wording of ILA
8:07:20 Ellis shifts the discussion. He reads the original letter proposing an interlocal agreement (ILA) with the City. He complains about use of the word “executed” in regard to the ILA. It says the Atlas 14 requirements “will be” executed when the ILA is signed. He worries about the future tense. He wants the letter to say “Once Atlas 14 regulations have been adopted” (past tense). By that, he means the deal will become effective once the City has adopted the regulations, not when they promise to adopt them at some unspecified point in the future.
It’s clear that he is wary of City promises. He worries about how long it might take to actually adopt Atlas 14. “They could adopt them 20 years from now.”
8:08:40 Ellis clarifies wording of his motion.
8:09:30 Ellis explains why he’s raising this subject outside of executive session: “to put the light of day on the deal.”
8:09:40 Ellis repeats: “My position is all three. Atlas 14. Half of purchase. Half of construction.”
8:10:20 Ellis paints the downside of investing in Montgomery County. “They could put another development up next door and benefit from $30 million worth of detention ponds we built without putting a dime up and doing nothing to stop flooding.”
8:10:35 Garcia interjects. He wants a policy about how Harris County spends dollars in another county.
8:12:10 Cagle agrees that he wants the City to adopt the Atlas 14 provisions before a purchase. Simply signing an interlocal agreement is not enough, he says.
Radack Proposes Deadline for City Adoption of Atlas 14
8:13:42 Radack says, “The City won’t adopt Atlas 14, so we might as well cut to the chase and adopt a deadline. That gives you a clear path.”
8:15:00 Ellis talks about how the project was “heavily lobbied.” “There’s a lawsuit on it,” he adds. He predicts people will say, “So when are you going to do it.” He implies, “Now, we’re liable” for anything that happens.
8:17:10 Hidalgo asks Poppe: How would you clarify the letter so the City knows Atlas 14 must be adopted (past tense), not just that they will adopt it (future tense).
8:17:20 Poppe reads the letter. It says, “Upon execution of the ILA, City of Houston will adopt by default…” Poppe thinks that language covers the problem.
“County Has Made No Commitment to Do a Project Out There”
8:18:00 Poppe says “We’ve made no commitment to do a project out there.”
8:18:30 Ellis goes rogue-elephant negative. “What are you going to do? Turn it into a birding park? You gonna pay for half of that?”
Hidalgo asks whether the language is clear. Poppe says “I will be happy to share the language tomorrow.”
Ellis says, “I want to make a motion so it will be clear.”
8:20 Ellis again makes the motion that includes the same three conditions: City contributes half of purchase and half of construction. City also adopts all Atlas 14 provisions.
8:21:30 Poppe reminds commissioners that the offer letter was already sent on the 14th of May, the day before the 15th deadline.
8:22:00 Hidalgo restates the motion.
Possibility of State or Federal Participation
8:22:15 At this point the discussion shifts a bit. They examine the possibility of 3rd party participation.
8:22:27 Ellis offhandedly reveals his motives at this point. He doesn’t want others taking money from his projects. “I know how this game works,” he says.
8:23:42 Cagle summarizes changes. “We want the City to ADOPT the standards.” “I’m fine with that,” he says. But then he adds that the second change, about construction costs, “hasn’t been in any of our discussions.”
8:23:55 Ellis asks, “Commissioner, what are we going to do with it?”
Cagle Reminds Commissioners of Two Key Elements
8:24:25 Cagle says, “There are two aspects to this development. One of them is that the developer is already putting in some detention ponds in advance and they did not go up on their price because of that work.” Cagle adds that he wants to build a plan before the purchase. He thinks they may be able to sell the extra dirt that needs to be removed. “Problem is though that that’s slower; it will depend on other projects that are going on in region.” By that he means there needs to be a market for the dirt.
Ellis Again Repeats Concerns
8:27:15 Ellis repeats his concerns yet again. “Houston should put up half of the price.” “Why is Harris County doing it all?” Then he goes back to his demands and says, “The current letter does not reflect all three of those conditions.”
8:29:30 Hidalgo clarifies motion.
Radack Reminds Commission that No Estimates Yet Exist
8:30:40 Radack breaks in and asks how long will it take to come up with an estimate of costs. “It will be very difficult to do anything unless the City and State know how much it will cost.”
8:31:43 A very frustrated and exasperated Jack Cagle says “I feel slapped around.”
8:32:45 Cagle says, “If the second part of the motion is that our partners have to put in as much as we do, I’m fine with that.”
Cagle Makes Motion Reflecting Ellis’ Concerns
8:33:25 Cagle finally makes a motion that includes all three conditions, after Ellis defers to him.
8:33:30 The motion passes unanimously.
8:33:38 Ellis asks for yet another restatement of the motion.
8:34:00 Hidalgo reads the motion into the record.
8:34:44 End of Elm Grove discussion.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/20/2020
995 Days after Hurricane Harvey