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April 6th, 2018:

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

It’s going to be redistricting time for Texas at SCOTUS soon

Here’s an update.

In their latest brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the voting and minority rights groups challenging Texas’ political maps painted Republican state lawmakers as “opportunistically inconsistent in their treatment of appearance versus reality.”

Pointing to the lawmakers’ 2013 adoption of a court-drawn map that was meant to be temporary, the groups chronicled the actions as “a ruse,” a “shellgame strategy” and a devious “smokescreen” meant to obscure discriminatory motives behind a previous redistricting plan.

Channeling their anger toward the lower court that found lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color, state attorneys used a February brief to denounce the court’s ruling as one that “defies law and logic,” suffers multiple “legal defects” and “flunks the commonsense test to boot.”

[…]

The legal fight between the state and its legal foes, which include several voters of color, has been churning through the courts since 2011. That was when lawmakers embarked on redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts to account for explosive growth, particularly among Hispanic residents, following the 2010 census.

Those maps never took effect because Texas, at the time, was still required to get federal approval of changes to its political maps before using them in elections. A federal court in Washington eventually rejected the boundaries, ruling they violated federal safeguards for voters of color. But by then, a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio had ordered up interim maps for congressional and state House districts to be used for the 2012 elections.

The San Antonio court at the time warned that the interim maps were still subject to revision. But state lawmakers in 2013 adopted those maps as their own, with few tweaks.

That move, the state contends, was a “conciliatory act” in which the Legislature “embraced the court’s maps for the perfectly permissible reason that it wanted to bring the litigation to an end.”

But in their brief filed last week with the high court, attorneys for voters and legislators challenging the maps described the 2013 maneuver in much different terms:

“In the State’s telling, there was a brief, shining moment in 2013 when Texas history reversed course and the Texas Legislature fell all over itself to conform state conduct to a federal court’s provisional observations. The district court rightly saw through the 2013 masquerade.”

As noted before, oral arguments will be on April 24, so gird your loins and make sure children and pets are in safe places. I will remind everyone that there were actually two remedial maps produced by the three-judge panel way back in 2011. The first one, which was based on the previous decade’s pre-cleared-and/or-ruled-VRA-compliant-by-SCOTUS maps, was thrown out by SCOTUS on the grounds that the panel needed to defer to the new maps as drawn by the Lege as their starting point. Which the court did, and which it did without taking into consideration the VRA Section 2 claims on which the plaintiffs subsequently prevailed. As such, claims that the interim maps solved all the problems and should have been the end of the litigation are false. The maps had problems, which the courts ultimately found, and that’s even before we get into the “intent” question.

Anyway. What happens from here is unknown. SCOTUS has had a busy term grappling with redistricting questions, but unlike the partisan-gerrymandering claims from Wisconsin and Maryland, this is old-fashioned racial discrimination/Voting Rights Act stuff. It’s also our last chance to remediate any damages before the next redistricting cycle. It would not be much of a win for the plaintiffs if we never get to have an election under non-discriminatory maps.

The CD02 primary runoff

Oh, yeah, that’s happening.

Rep. Ted Poe

Kevin Roberts already overcame a $6 million onslaught from self-funding multimillionaire Kathaleen Wall to keep his hopes of winning a seat in Congress alive.

Now the Republican’s challenge is beating retired Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, a dark horse candidate who emerged from the primary election with surprising momentum.

Roberts, 51, said he’s not intimidated as the May 22 runoff approaches in the GOP primary battle to replace U.S. Rep. Ted Poe in Congress and will stick to his strategy.

“We will continue to run our race,” said Roberts, a businessman who was elected to the state Legislature in 2016. “All I can do is focus on our campaign and work to get our core message out … Experience matters.”

But Crenshaw isn’t about to give an inch on that front either.

Crenshaw, 33, has never held office but said he’s more than ready to put his nearly 10 years in the Navy up against Roberts’ political experience. Crenshaw said his time in the military taught him leadership skills, which he said are at the core of being a good public servant.

Crenshaw said that experience gives him an edge over Roberts on foreign policy and national security issues. Crenshaw served in South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, while on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb nearly killed him. He lost his right eye and medically retired from the Navy in 2016.

On the one hand, I’m sure I speak for millions of Houstonians when I say I’m so relieved I’ll never have to see another Kathaleen Wall advertisement again. On the other hand, this runoff without Wall’s cartoon villainy is pretty much dullsville. I mean, these guys are about as compelling as unbuttered toast. Them’s the breaks, I guess. Anyway, eventually one of these guys will win the right to go up against Todd Litton, who I hope is busy raising more money right now. In the meantime, I’ll try to remember that this race exists.