North by Southwest: Zoning-Free Houston, John Fullbright, and Lunch with A.C

Posted on August 27, 2014

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Welcome to the first installment of North by Southwest, ELGL’s newest column! Join ELGL contributor John McCarter for his new bi-weekly column exploring all things Southwest. In each installment we will take a look at what’s going on around the Southwest, complete with coverage of topical issues, jobs, music, books, and maybe more. Think of it like a Western-themed variety show with a host who is really into local government. If that doesn’t catch your interest we don’t what will.

What’s Upcoming, SW ELGL?

Lunch with AC Gonzalez, Dallas City Manager

Five News Items You Need to Know

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  • Texas Drought Will Lighten up By Winter, Report Says. According to a new report published by the Climate Prediction Center, Texas Cities may be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. As it stands today, 59% of the State finds itself still experiencing drought conditions. That could change come December when experts predict the entire State except the southern-most regions will see an end to the drought.
  • Dallas City Council Members Argue about DART’s Cotton Belt Plans. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority is trying to move forward with funding service along their Cotton Belt line that would provide an easier connection for riders travelling from Plano to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Disagreement among Councilmembers regarding the placement of the line in Northern Dallas have stalled efforts for now.
  • Gov. Rick Perry Indicted. This story broke over a week ago and is most likely not news if you have not been living under a rock. Nevertheless, Rick Perry became the first Texas Governor in almost a century to be indicted. Two charges have been filed against Governor Perry; abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Both charges stem from a line-item veto Perry issued last year eliminating $7.5 million in funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. The charges claim that Perry overstepped his gubernatorial powers while Perry’s representation has steadfastly claimed the Governor was within the Texas Constitution. Opinions run the gamut; we’ll let you make up your own mind.
  • Houston Mayor Proposes New DB Plan for Incoming Firefighters. Last week Houston Mayor Annise Parker proposed a new defined benefit plan that would save the City $110 million over the next 20 years but would not guarantee cost of living increases in future years. The Mayor is pushing for the new proposal, claiming it would give more power to the City to control pensions, rather than relying on a pension board.
  • Texas proposes Tougher Rules on Wells after Quakes. Earlier this week the Texas Railroad Commission proposed tightening regulation on injection wells. The new rules come as scientists explore a possible tie between high-pressure wastewater disposal and earthquakes so small you can’t feel them.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs on the Range…

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  1. City Manager. Port Arthur, TX
  2. Assistant Director/Intergovernmental Affairs. Avondale, AZ
  3. County Manager. Summit County, UT
  4. Park Development Specialist. Round Rock, TX
  5. Director of Cultural Arts and Tourism. Henderson, NA
  6. Public Information Officer/Social Media Manager, Rio Rancho, NM
  7. Management Assistant, Pearland, TX
  8. Vice President, Pearland Economic Development Corporation (PEDC)

For more jobs openings, check out 08.26.14 Jobs, Jobs, Jobs (And the Winner Is….Remix).

And Now Deep Thoughts………Zoning-Free Houston

Your city would look like Houston without zoningIn this section of North by Southwest we will explore, in a bit of depth, any number of topics impacting local governments in the Southwest. Being new to the region, I’ll be looking at some rather unique aspects of local government that may seem pretty ordinary to SW natives (TIRZs, MUDs, LIDs, ETJs, Management Districts, etc.) but are anything but ordinary to us newly minted Texans. My goal is not to stake out a claim, get on soapbox, or convince you of anything. My aim is to explore those topics that interest me as a Michigander living in the Southwest, learn something new, and hopefully spread some knowledge along the way.

Today we’re looking at zoning in the City of Houston. Before I came to Houston, I thought the idea of no zoning was crazy. Does the whole City of Houston live in anarchy? I pictured factories placed in the middle of neighborhoods, oil wells across the street from super markets and, worst of all, none of them have enough parking! Insanity.

First of all, no zoning does not mean no control over development. When they say there is no zoning in Houston, they’re really saying that there is no comprehensive zoning code; meaning the City didn’t draw up one of those map with the different colors outlining a plan for land uses (but the City does have a map outlining current land uses, along with a bunch of other awesome maps from their GIS Department). Land use regulation is not enforced on the aggregate level by the City. That does not mean that the City has not say in how you develop your parcel of land; standards still exist and are enforced.

At this point you may be wondering how the City regulates development without a zoning code. The short answer is: probably a lot like your City regulates development, just without determining the land uses. Houston has a set of rules that dictate set-back standards, landscaping, parking requirements, and other commonly enforced building code standards.

4e6e25f5aaf4e.preview-300The City recently changed rules dealing with housing density outside the “610 Loop” (which has traditionally been less urban and more suburban). Some areas of the City are deemed urban (more dense) while other are considered suburban (less dense). Rules set in 1999 established the standard of 16 units per acre outside the loop; that will be increased to 27 units per acre city-wide next May. But without traditional zoning what is stopping someone from developing a big multifamily complex in a single-family neighborhood? New protections allow neighborhoods without deed restrictions (see next paragraph) to impose minimum lot sizes.

Another way land use is regulated is through deed restrictions. Deed restrictions are private agreements that determine how you can, or cannot, develop a given piece of land. Subdivisions, as well as other entities, often have deed restrictions preventing alternative land uses within their jurisdictions. Deed restrictions are enforced first through the HOA, neighborhood association or subdivision with whom the deed restriction is held but the City of Houston gets involved when cases get escalated. The City’s Deed Restrictions Enforcement Team is a division of the City Attorney’s Office. Why? Because there is no zoning so there is no need for the Planning Department to get involved.

qqqqqAn interesting case came up recently involving a development known as the Ashby High Rise going up in a residential neighborhood (for full details check out this story from Governing Magazine). Long story short: a developer came in looking to put up a 21-story high rise in a wealthy neighborhood consisting of single family homes. After 5 years of denying permits, the City was forced to allow construction but residents filed suit claiming that the building was a nuisance. They were awarded $1.2 million. This is new ground, and not only for the City of Houston. Traditionally, a nuisance has been an abandoned car, an overgrown house, or an old pile of wood that can be seen from road, but in this case the nuisance is a development that has been permitted and approved by the City. The developer is appealing the decision but for now it seems the precedent has been set; you can build what you want on your property but residents can seek restitution for any perceived or actual nuisances brought on by your development.

Traditional zoning will most likely not be coming to Houston any time soon, although it remains an interesting topic. In spite of a lack of traditional zoning within the City, there are several means for the City (as well as residents and private developers) to control land uses. Houston consistently tops national lists for population growth. It will be interesting to see how inevitable increased density within the City’s core will react with the expansive mixed uses. I suspect that the Ashby High Rise case will not be last challenge to the status quo we see in Houston.

Southern Twang


Just to prove to y’all that we here at Southwest ELGL are not all about Texas, our first musical guest is Oklahoma’s own John Fullbright. He meets the standard to Southwest songwriters; introspective and catchy with some serious gospel undertones but at 26 years old brings a youthful view to a traditionally graying crowd. Fans of gravel-throated blues will not be left wanting but Fullbright also impresses for the love ballad crowd. His range as a musician is impressive. My personal favorite is “All the Time in the World,” a song about being young and lost but being ok with it. We can all relate. In general Fullbright falls in line with my two rules about great musicians; 1) the older stuff is always the best and 2) the live sets are much better than the albums.

Like John Fullbright? Check out Parker Milsap, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, Slaid Cleaves

Supplemental Reading

How Houston gets along without zoning

Houston, We Have a (Zoning) Problem

The Myth Of Zoning-Free Houston

Pure Midwest

New Sensation with John McCarter

Discovering Detroit with Cole Grisham and John McCarter

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