Residents concerned new Friendswood development could cause homes to flood

A new development in Friendswood is stirring a lot of controversy after concerned residents say building on the property could cause many homes in the area to flood. 

On a stretch of land on Dixie Farm Road are piles of dirt being brought in from the South Belt Stormwater Detention Center filling in what used to be a floodway.

Attorney Shawn Johnson is a native of Friendswood and sees this building site as a major potential problem for dozens of residents in the area, including him and his family, who are worried this development could cause their homes to flood. 

"It's land that normally holds water from Clear Creek when it floods-- not floods like Harvey,
but much smaller floods. If you have water that normally sat in one spot and you bring it up, maybe the dirt can hold a little bit of water. But when you pour concrete on top of it and structures on top of it, the water is going to go some place else," Johnson said.

Matt Zeve, Director of Operations for the Harris County Flood Control District Project, said it does not approve permits for properties located in flood plains, but this time, staff members apparently made an honest mistake. 

The most recent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain maps available to the Flood Control District dates back to 2007, and is the version used in most other areas of Harris County.

However, in December of 2017, the city of Friendswood reverted from using 2007 flood plain maps, to 1999 flood maps instead.  The city claims the change would help flooding victims affected by Harvey, rebuild. But the older maps have smaller flood plains and adopting the maps shrank the areas that are considered problematic. 

Construction contractors for the Flood Control District are required to report where they intend to dispose of excavated material, including a declaration that the material will not be placed in the floodplain.

But Zeve said because the nearly 20-year-old, 1999 version of the map was included in the application process by contractors, the disposal site was approved. 

“We are still considering our options and working toward correcting this situation,” Zeve said. “And from now on, the district engineers who sign off on disposal sites will consult our most current 2007 maps, regardless of what floodplain map is acceptable in the community where the disposal site is located.”

Zeve said after realizing its mistake, the Flood Control District tried to purchase the private property from the landowner, but the asking price was well-above the district's budget and the sale could not be completed. The district is now trying to figure out alternate places to excavate, so flood waters have somewhere to flow to in lieu of hurricane season. Zeve says the district aims to have alternate excavation spots completed by October. 

"Many homes in the area aren't on that map, so of course it's not in a flood zone there
because on both sides of the creek, you have open fields that can take the water. My house wasn't even built in 1999 along with majority of my neighborhood," Johnson said.

Although the Harris County Flood Control District made the mistake in approving the permit, Johnson said it's up to the city of Friendswood on actually allowing construction to proceed. 

Additionally, Johnson argues the permit was approved by a Friendswood city authority in November-- nearly a month before city council officially signed to adopt the 1999 maps into use.

Johnson said many lawsuits are brought against developers for causing flooding after the fact, but he's trying to take every action possible to stop it from happening in the first place. 

"This is an opportunity to stop the injury before it occurs. And I don't understand and I can't stress it enough-- why the City of Friendswood refuses to do the right thing," Johnson said.

In a statement, Ray Viada, an attorney hired by the city of Friendswood, said, "Due to threatened litigation by people related to this matter, the City will not be responding to your questions at this time. The City affirms that all laws, rules, policies, and procedures were followed. The City continues to do all it can to help residents who suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey to recover with a combination of local, state and federal assistance. It is unfortunate that threatened litigation is a distraction from those efforts.”    

A planning and zoning commission meeting was held at 5:30 p.m. Monday.