On Wednesday April 24, 2013, the Houston City Council will vote on Chapter 42.  Citizens will have one last opportunity to raise their concerns at the pop-off session before City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

I think that I can speak for the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways.  Tomaro Bell, President of the SNA, and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years.   They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them.  SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues.  Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre.  Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes.  They are neighborhoods like yours.  Fortunately, with help from CM Costello, SNA leaders were able stop these changes from going forward.

Underground street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded?   But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important.  Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners?  With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park?  In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets.  Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story homes need a place for support pads so they don’t topple over.  These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size.  Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny.  Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another.  Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .   More about that later.

Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car.  People who fondly remember brownstones in Chicago or New York forget that both cities have excellent mass transit and until recently, neither had the flooding concerns that Houston does.   Multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood creates a parking mess, increases traffic, and would probably remove the trees and shade that define the neighborhood’s character.  That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family and have committed to a multi-year mortgage to realize it.

From the drainage perspective, neighborhoods in my area have been dealing with redevelopment of commercial tracts that have not adhered to City ordinances for detention or were granted unwarranted variances to do without.  We approached CC well before these properties were completed seeking help, but found none.  In a meeting on April3, 2013, CM Costello told SNA representatives that homeowners in my area were victims of a lack of enforcement. Had it been one instance, I would agree, but it was worse that – it was multiple occurrences of systematically ignoring ordinances that continues even now.  So unless we want recurrences of what happened in my area, before Chapter 42 is passed, we need legislation setting up oversight committees, clearly written enforcement criteria, and personnel dedicated to enforcement.  Keep in mind, though, that the area to service increases by 8.4 times that inside Loop 610, so this is not a small requirement.  All present politicians will be gone when this experiment is in full swing, so all uncodified promises are meaningless.

City Council has been told by Mayor Parker that the City needs density to generate funds, but it may be false economy.  Presently, growth is primarily in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) around new activity centers of The Woodlands, Sugarland, Katy, the Energy Corridor, etc.,  so I expect that much of the new development will continue to be near these centers.  Chapter 42 affects the ETJ as well.  The further away infrastructure is, the more it costs.  Our water comes from Lake Houston.  Pumping that water across the entire City while maintaining flow and pressure is expensive. And if a development explosion occurs in a previously undeveloped area, providing the infrastructure may consume most of, or more than, the increased revenues generated.

Section 42-182 clearly shows that minimum lot sizes in the ETJ can also be reduced to 1400 square feet, although each lot of that size must have 720 square feet of compensating green space versus the 600 square feet required in the urban zone.  Compensating green space can be replaced by a recreational center, so clearly this is not to prevent flooding.  Normal lot size in the urban area without requiring green space is 3500 square feet and is 5000 square feet in the ETJ.  Plats in the urban area can be less than 1400 square feet as long as the average is 1400, yet under no circumstance can ETJ plats be below 1400 square feet.   The upshot of this is that if the City’s reason for doing Chapter 42 is to increase density inside the City limits in order to generate new revenue, then why are they increasing density outside the City to almost the same levels?  It makes no sense.

All this may not stem the migration to the suburbs either.  That’s being driven by jobs (Exxon, Noble Drilling, etc) moving to the ETJ and the construction of the Grand Parkway and its induced development.  Better schools, more property at a lower cost, newer construction, lower taxes, lower insurance, less traffic, etc., also affect the transition, not to mention that the size of the ETJ is more than double the existing City limits.  Why is it a surprise that there’s explosive growth?

High density developments in Jane’s area started as high-end properties drawing empty nesters looking to simplify their lives.  The aforementioned issues became apparent – parking, noise, traffic, etc.- so they soon became rental properties and the values began to slide.  It should not come as a surprise that many are inhabited by multiple singles splitting the rent, nor should it surprise that Jane’s neighborhood is the test bed for new parking ordinances, noise ordinances and who knows what’s next.

Common sense says that Chapter 42 should not be sprung on all 4 million people at once with most not understanding what it’s all about, particularly since so many people are unaware of its ramifications.  Just three days before the CC vote the Houston Chronicle wrote an OpEd about Chapter 42, but said that it applies to the area inside Beltway 8.  That’s wrong.  If the Chronicle Editorial Board doesn’t know what’s going on, why would City Council expect the rest of the City’s citizens to be any better informed?  At least give the Chronicle time to catch up.  Common sense says implement the changes inside Loop 610 immediately, test the results, then plan a staged roll-out into areas that have been identified as being served by adequate infrastructure or where infrastructure has newly been added in anticipation of densification.  Stage it with expansion of mass transit and commercial revitalization, improved drainage and detention.  But common sense does not seem to hold sway.

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