Power and Will: Eminent Domain for Preserving Land and Surviving Floods

The Moral Hazard in a Golf Course


May 18, 2018

Mention “eminent domain” and ugly associations come to mind. The brutal power of the state. Taking homes and beloved ranch and farm land for development of oil pipelines, highways, powerlines, private for-profit rail lines. Destroying neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” Condemnation.

But what if the government instead used its power of eminent domain to preserve undeveloped land urgently needed for stormwater detention and green space? It can do that. Other cities have done that. Why, the government can even use this power to preserve much needed affordable housing, say for people displaced by flooding. Local governments elsewhere are doing that. (See New York City and Richmond, California.)

Recently there has been controversy over the City of Houston’s role in allowing residential development on more than 100 acres of an unused golf course on Gessner Road in west Houston just east of Addicks Reservoir. Discussion has focused on the folly (and taxpayer burden) of constructing (federally-insured) homes in a floodplain.

But the more critical issue is that local golf courses, including this particular golf course, have been identified as one of the few remaining sources of undeveloped land vitally needed for detaining stormwater and reducing flooding in our highly developed city.

The golf course in question, Pine Crest, drains into Brickhouse Gully, which in turn drains into White Oak Bayou. Both streams are among the top ten fastest rising streams by flow in the state of Texas, according to a recent study by hydrologist Matthew Berg. Also in the top ten is Cole Creek, which flows into the same spot, pointed out Berg in a recent interview.

The decision to allow development of this open space, instead of using it for stormwater detention, is a prime example of creating a moral hazard: placing people in harm’s way knowing that others will pick up the tab for the damages.

No Dispute: This Green Space Is Urgently Needed to Hold Rain Runoff

The 150-acre site of the former Pine Crest golf course on Gessner and Clay roads in west Houston. Culvert in upper right drains into Brickhouse Gully, which has one of the fastest rising streamflows in Texas. Google Earth image Oct. 28, 2017


Neighborhoods along all of these streams have experienced repeated flooding, reported the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, a group of local scientific experts organized after Harvey. The consortium recommended creating detention, among other remedies, along these streams in its recently released report. (p. 44).

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6 thoughts on “Power and Will: Eminent Domain for Preserving Land and Surviving Floods”

  1. Tracy Stephens says:

    BraeBurn Country Club needs to be taken over with eminent domain to mitigate all the Meyerland and Texas Medical Center Flooding. Even the cost to purchase the club outright is cheaper than buyouts in Meyerland and other major home, businesses repairs.
    There are also 2 golf courses and parks on city’s northeast and east side that also need converting into park detention facilities, this side of city has been effected since Allison Storm over 15 years ago and still nothing.

    1. Thanks, Tracy Stephens. We need to compile a list of golf courses and parks that can be redesigned for stormwater detention.

  2. Andrew says:

    Buffalo Bayou trails are a brainless act. Building a dog park is insane, pouring waste into the waterway’s. Telling people not to build on the floodway and than building on the floodway.
    Stealing peoples land through eminent domain will not help flooding a bit. Cutting down tree’s and building trails on Buffalo Bayou only made things worse.

    1. Preserving undeveloped land through the use of eminent domain is not stealing. It’s paying a fair market price for land that needs to be protected from development in order to help protect us from flood hazards. That’s keeping trees, grass, prairie, wetlands, green and open space — natural detention — that doesn’t become impervious surface that adds to runoff and flooding. Houston and Harris County don’t have any other planning tools to protect much needed land. And in fact eminent domain is far better than zoning, which prevents development without compensation.

      Do note that we are not in favor of concrete trails on the bayou, or dog parks with concrete ponds and iron fences, or building in the floodway.

      Just to make things clear, Save Buffalo Bayou is a nonprofit environmental organization. We are not affiliated with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the development organization that cut down trees and landscaped the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial and Allen Parkway, and that is now developing plans for the bayou east of downtown.

  3. Andrew says:

    Understood, but what if someone does not want to sell. What if a farmer has had land in his family for generations and held on to the land to preserve it and after everything else has been built around it, should the government be able to take it? It’s not preserving when it’s being destroyed by the very people stating they are protecting it. That is what happen on the Spring Creek Greenway, miles and miles of trash, washed away concrete trails and a nature center that has flooded several times in the last few years. It was sold on protecting the environment and flood control, it did neither. Although you can look sign on a locked gate at a flooded building on how they have protected it.
    It has flooded in this area for more than 100 years at least,and will continue to do so.

    1. In that case there would be no need to buy the farmer’s land. This argument for the use of eminent domain is to protect land from being subdivided and developed so that it can remain as greenspace — when there are no other options. Land that is urgently needed to help absorb and detain runoff. Houston and Harris County have no other tools to stop development on prairies and floodplains.

      This area has flooded since the beginning of time. Floods are natural and necessary and we are not going to stop them. But we are talking about trying to not artificially increase flooding by covering over the land with buildings and pavement.

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