Harris County commissioners took steps toward reshaping the communities of Highlands and Crosby Tuesday, authorizing property acquisition negotiations for post-Harvey efforts to get flood-prone communities out of harm’s way.

In one action, the court authorized the Harris County Attorney’s Office to prepare and make offers on 160 tracts of land around Highlands, mainly north and west of the Banana Bend Nature Preserve. The acquisition is on behalf of the Harris County Flood Control District.

While property acquisition is planned in target areas across the county, Tuesday’s action related to the Highlands area.

The flood buy-out programs work to acquire property that has repeated serious flood damage and remove housing and other uses from it.

Another action by the commissioners seeks to replace some of the housing stock lost to flooding or buyouts, as the court authorized a private contractor to prepare and make offers on 18 tracts that are currently vacant lots, with plans to build new single-family residences to help replace lost housing capacity.

That is also a county-wide program, but most of the

property included in Tuesday’s action is in or near Crosby.

Robert Lazaro, communications officer for the Harris County Flood Control District, said the Banana Bend-area buyout program is one of several taking place across the county.

Tuesday’s Commissioners Court action authorizes the Real Property Division of the County Attorney’s Office to move forward in purchasing the affected property. 

Most of the property is vacant, though a few lots have houses on them. Lazaro could not say without further research how many, if any, of the houses are currently inhabited or how many remain habitable after the Harvey and Imelda floods.

“That whole area around Banana Bend is an area of high interest,” Lazaro said. “We’re trying to acquire as much privately owned property as we can get in that area for floodplain restoration and potential future storm water storage projects in that area.

“It’s kind of hard to design and know exactly what those efforts will be until we get as much of the property as we can from the area.”

Lazaro said property owners in the area have been contacted, but some who never rebuilt and moved away do not have current contact information available.

Legal action to acquire property by eminent domain is a last resort, he said, as those proceedings can be time-consuming and delay the project.

While flood control efforts focus on getting housing off of land, either because it floods frequently or because it can be used for flood mitigation efforts, both those buyouts and the flooding itself have another consequence: they remove homes where people have lived.

To help address that, the county has a Disaster Recovery Community Development Block Grant that funds a Single Family New Construction Program that will build new homes in affected areas—but on higher ground.

For areas in Harris County but outside the City of Houston, the program is administered by the Harris County Community Services Department.

Cynthia Gabriel, public information officer for that department, said the contract approved Tuesday will “enter into a relationship with Real Properties, which is a contractor that will begin negotiating with people … who might want to sell.

“They have more than 500 potential candidate sites in internal review. The ones in court [Tuesday] are the first that have risen to the top to proceed with. They’re going to just start talking to those people about buying those properties.”

The properties under consideration are not filled with existing homes, but lots where homes can be built.

Guidelines published by the Community Services Department explain, “In a period where the local housing stock is low or in flood prone areas, quality replacement homes, especially affordable homes, will be impossible to find in Harris County.

“The Harris County Single Family New Construction Program will replace affordable single-family housing stock by developing new housing in areas of reduced risk of flooding. To meet this challenge, Harris County will implement innovative solutions for promoting and partnering with local homebuilders to create new inclusive communities that offer a wide variety of housing choice and construction solutions that lends toward resilience investments.”

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