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EDITORIAL: Zoning rules have their place

September 2, 2017

The catastrophe we are sadly watching consume Houston was not caused only by a natural phenomenon. Yes, Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches of rain on the city, an unmanageable amount by almost any standard.

But the flooding was exacerbated by decades of decisions—or lack of decisions—about zoning. Houston is a community known for its lack of strong rules governing development, a place where the population has been exploding and houses are cheap, thanks to almost limitless amounts of land for new construction.

For years, developers have built on or paved over the wetlands and prairies that are the natural escape valves for water. A fascinating story in The New York Times details how Houston has grown into the nation’s fourth-largest city, despite its humble beginning as a coastal bayou that suffered 16 major floods in its first century of existence.

For years, developments have not been designed with enough open land or retention areas to handle floods, The Times reports. “It’s been known for years how to do it,” Phil Bedient, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University, told the newspaper. “It just costs the developers more money to do it that way.”

This is not meant to beat up on the weary folks in Houston. The storm that has overwhelmed the city and its suburbs would likely have done great damage regardless.

But there are lessons to be learned from Houston—just as there were from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—that are relevant in central Indiana, even though we’re hundreds of miles from hurricane zones.

Indiana, too, is a place where development is prized, land is abundant and cheap, and zoning rules are relatively light. Environmental concerns about drainage, ground water and wetlands are often shuffled behind a desire for population growth and economic development. Few here want to tell others what they can and can’t do with their own property.

There are positives to that approach. Indiana, like Texas, is a great place to get more house for your money, and it’s a cheaper place to do business. When you don’t have mountains or oceans, such freedoms are your calling card.

But there are negatives, as well, and we are watching them play out in appalling but all-too-predictable ways in southeast Texas.

We never want to see them play out like that here.

Indiana’s state and local governments have a responsibility to review the way development occurs in Indiana and question whether officials seriously consider the environmental impacts construction imposes on our lands. Some of this obviously occurs. Many communities have zoning rules that require retention ponds, drainage plans, wetland restoration and a number of other accommodations to address concerns about water and flooding.

But is it enough? It’s a question Indiana should not take too long to answer. Mother Nature might not wait to let us know whether we did it right.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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