Development Watch List: Orchard Seeded Ranches From the Air

The Romerica high-rise project near the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork was reborn recently as Orchard Seeded Ranches. Same property. Same developer. Undisclosed concept as of this date.

When the developer sought approval of their general plan from the City of Houston Planning Commission, the City deferred approval. Instead they asked the developer to consult with the City Engineer and Harris County Flood Control, before coming back to the commission.

Despite the location of the development in the floodplain and floodway of the West Fork, ironically, the City had only procedural comments on the plans. The comments had to do with things like the spacing and labelling of streets. Incredibly, they did not refer to potential flooding or wetlands issues.

Pending Regulation Changes Could Affect Development

However, regulation changes are pending. Harris County has made adoption of its Atlas-14-based stormwater design and floodplain standards a condition of participating in all flood bond projects. Those standards would require elevation of any homes built on the Romerica property. In practical terms, that means building on stilts. And that, in turn, means dollars.

Specifically, the County wants the City to change Article III: Standards for Flood Hazard Reduction in the Houston Code of Ordinances, Chapter 19 Floodplain (September 2018):

  • 19-33(a) Base Flood Elevation Requirements –Must also include a provision that no fill will be allowed to elevate structures proposed for the 100-year floodplain.  These structures must be on open foundations designed by a structural engineer.

Where Property Is

Here’s where the property is. It wraps around the Barrington, which was elevated significantly and still flooded during Harvey. It also wraps around River Grove Park Kingwood Country Club, and Deer Ridge Park.

Purple area represents proposed site of Romerica’s Orchard Seeded Ranches Development.

Large Concentration of Forested Wetlands

All aerial photos below were taken on 5/11/2020.

Looking southeast from the southwest corner of Romerica’s property. Hamblen Road enters the from on the middle right. That’s the San Jacinto West Fork cutting through the top of the frame.
Looking southeast while hovering over Woodland Hills Drive. The northern part of Romerica’s property lies between the front and back nines of the Kingwood Country Club Lake Course. That’s the Barrington on the right.
Those same trees serve as a nesting ground for hundreds of great egrets.
Looking southwest from near the entrance from Barrington. Deer Ridge Park wraps around the water tower.
Looking SE over Woodland Hills and the Barrington entrance. The property contains three artificial lakes, which I believe were excavated to elevate the Barrington. Note how high lake level/water table is. River Grove soccer fields are on right. Look closely and you can also see the Kingwood Diversion Ditch entering the park from the lower right.

From the ground, beneath the dense canopy of trees, you can see palmettos galore. Palmetto plants are an important biologic indicator of wetlands. They only grow where the ground is underwater at least part of the year.

Source: USGS National Wetlands Inventory. Blue areas = lake. Green = Forested Wetlands.

Role of Wetlands in Reducing Flooding

The EPA cites flood protection as one of the primary benefits of wetlands.

“Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, … and flood waters. Trees, root mats and other wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplain. This combined water storage an braking action lowers flood heights and reduces erosion,” says the Agency.

They continue: “Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable, counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface- water runoff from pavement and buildings. The holding capacity of wetlands helps control floods… Preserving and restoring wetlands together with other water retention can often provide the level of flood control otherwise provided by expensive dredge operations and levees. The bottomland hardwood- riparian wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored at least 60 days of floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or drained.”

Reasons Romerica Application Previously Withdrawn

Last year, when Romerica tried to develop this area as condos and high rises, they ran into protests from US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps, environmental groups, and the Kingwood community. Major concerns included the filling of wetlands, nesting bald eagles, river migration, flood dangers to residents, and lack of evacuation routes.

Fence separating Romerica property from Hamblen road after Harvey.

All those concerns still exist. Romerica should take a cue from the Humble ISD. They’ve had two ag barns in this area. The District abandoned one (that was actually on Romerica property), moved to higher ground, is trying to abandon the second, and hopes to move to higher ground yet again.

As of this writing, Romerica has not yet reapplied to the City Planning Commission. Nor has the City adopted all of the County’s Atlas-14 regulations.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/27/2020

1002 Days after Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.