Houston Is Drowning—In Its Freedom From Regulations

We do value our freedom here in Texas. As I write from soggy Central Texas, the cable news is showing people floating down Buffalo Bayou on their principles, proud residents of the largest city in these United States that did not grow in accordance with zoning ordinances.

The feeling there was that persons who own real estate should be free to develop it as they wish. Houston, also known as the Bayou City, is a great location because of its access to international shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a great location for building, though, because of all its impervious cover. If water could easily sink into the ground, there would be less of it ripping down Houston’s rivers that just a week ago were overcrowded streets.

In less-free cities, the jackbooted thugs in the zoning department impose limits on the amount of impervious cover in a development. Some of the limits can be finessed by lining parking lots with bricks turned sideways, so grass can be planted in the holes.

If you meet the impervious cover standards, you still might get your entire plat chucked into the round file because some computer has determined that your business plan will attract automobile traffic in excess of the carrying capacity of nearby roads. Faceless bureaucracies have no respect for the inalienable right of every American to park his car on the public streets during rush hourt

I got snarky in the law school class where I first heard that Houston had no zoning, wishing out loud I could build a rendering plant in the so-posh River Oaks neighborhood. I was quickly slapped down by the freedom fighters in the class, who informed me that there are no rendering plants in River Oaks because the real estate costs too much. Did I not understand that the market regulates land use much more effectively than bureaucrats could?

River Oaks remains some of the most expensive real estate in the U.S., a model of what could be done with appropriate planning. Developers accomplished their ends by deed restrictions and “gentlemen’s agreements.”

Home prices were required to exceed $7,000 back in the 1920s and deed restrictions even specified allowable architectural styles. Gentlemen of the times, of course, excluded Jews and “Negroes” and similar undesirables. After Houston annexed River Oaks in 1927, the suburb became a neighborhood, but it remained a haven for swell folks as tightly regulated by custom as Houston was unregulated by law.

Impervious cover in Houston, meanwhile, has increased and continues to increase. I look at my television and see that the streets are flooded. The San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou are out of their banks. People are wading through waist-deep water carrying a few possessions, children and pets.

This catastrophic flooding is the result of 20 to 30 inches of rain. Adding to the water in the streets now, the Army Corps of Engineers has announced several reservoirs in the area will be opening floodgates to avoid failure of the dams, and the floodgates are expected to stay open for weeks because so much water will be coming downstream. Additionally, the National Weather Service is warning Houston to expect another 15 to 25 inches of rain.

As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is ambling off toward Louisiana, taking with him the high winds and the danger of storm surges but leaving rain and more rain. Critics in the cheap seats are complaining that Houston issued no mandatory evacuation order. That would only occur to somebody who has never sat in the parking lot that Loop 610 becomes at least twice a day when people are just going to and from work.

Putting the entire population on the roads at the same time, roads that are prone to flash floods when rains are nowhere near these historic levels, would mean not just inconvenience but fatalities. There would be at least as many rescues to be done as there are now, but they would be more dangerous rescues.

Agreeing that mandatory evacuation would have driven up the casualty numbers (currently in single digits), Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told MSNBC that half of the population would refuse to evacuate, but enough would do so to cause massive traffic jams that would leave everyone stuck in them at extreme danger in flash floods.

Houston was built without regard for the carrying capacity of its roads, just as it was built without regulating the amount of impervious cover that would be shedding water into streets, storm sewers, rivers and Buffalo Bayou.

Texans do value their freedom.

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