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Houston Regional Group - News
LATEST NEWS ON SIERRA CLUB V. FEMA A Cynical Lesson in Civics or Power Trumps Public Interest. by Evelyn L. Merz

If you need an example of how real-world government (Insert HARRIS COUNTY here) doesn’t work for the public good, but only the public with goods and power, read further—

This is the latest twist in the Houston Group’s lawsuit, Sierra Club v. FEMA, now more than five years in the running. Our story began with the simple goal of asking FEMA and the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) to produce an accurate Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for Upper Cypress Creek. The Sierra Club made repeated requests to FEMA and HCFCD to revise the Draft FIRMS to map the floodplain correctly, which would have meant setting the 100-year floodplain at an elevation almost four feet higher than drawn on the draft map. However, they at first ignored the request and then offered to correct the maps after they were issued. At that point, the Sierra Club had no option but litigation.

The greatest beneficiary of the original Draft FIRM and its setting of the critical elevation at a lower level was Bridgeland, a major developer in West Houston of 11,000+ acres. The lower the floodplain elevation is set, the greater the area of wetland that could be filled and developed.

As Sierra Club v. FEMA has unwound these five years, the Sierra Club has been represented by the firm of Blackburn & Carter, with Larry Dunbar, P.E. providing expertise as hydrologist. The Court decided in favor of the Sierra Club, which meant that FEMA/HCFCD were required to correct the Flood Insurance Rate Maps. After lengthy modeling studies, new and correct Draft FIRMS were drawn up. Bridgeland objected to the revised Draft FIRM and appealed to FEMA/HCFCD – but lost the appeal.

Bridgeland wanted another bite at the apple –but how to do it?
Answer: Set up a Scientific Resolution Panel (SRP), a tool established to review the facts and recommend a resolution when FEMA and a Community cannot agree. In this case, the Community is Harris County. But here’s where Power trumps Public Interest.----

Harris County claimed it actually supported the revised Draft FIRM map that conformed to the Sierra Club’s position. So why did Harris County (and FEMA) ask U.S. District Court for an extension of time to set up a Scientific Resolution Panel to consider changing a map that they already agreed was correct? — —Because Bridgeland (through Brown & Gay Engineers), the developer that will be most affected by a correct rendering of the floodplain, requested that a SRP be set up. The 5-member SRP would have two of its five members chosen by FEMA from a list of approved candidates supplied by the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Who would choose the three remaining — and majority — of the SRP? Answer: The “Community”. Who is the Community? Answer: Harris County! This is where it gets really interesting: And who has Harris County designated to actually choose the 3 member majority to serve on the SRP? Bridgeland! Yes, the very company that has resisted correct mapping of the floodplain will now pick the majority of a Scientific Review Panel that will recommend whether to adopt the floodplain map corrections!

The Sierra Club’s legal team of Blackburn & Carter requested a status conference before the judge to discuss this glaring manipulation of the process and public interest by a private developer. The parties discussed the matter before Judge Lee Rosenthal in U.S. District Court on August 29.

Only one party didn’t show up — Harris County. No attorneys in court represented Harris County, aka, “the Community”. But the real power was there. Yes, Bridgeland’s legal team was there. Perhaps Harris County attorneys didn’t want to be there to hear Judge Rosenthal call Harris County a “puppet” and Bridgeland the “puppeteer”. Yes, the judge recognized that Harris County (aka the puppet) was handing the authority to choose the majority of deciding panelists to Bridgeland. But as Judge Rosenthal noted, the law allowed it.

There is one final grace note of irony. The decision of the Scientific Resolution Panel is supposed to be due on December 7, which we have to hope will not go down as the day of infamous collusion.

Last updated:  11/20/2011.   Content © 1999-2011 by the Sierra Club.