Lack of Zoning Leaves Houston Neighborhoods Vulnerable to Pollution

Houston doesn't compare well with other cities when it comes to locating polluting industrial uses near residential neighborhoods. Blame the city's lack of zoning, according to new research.

2 minute read

September 21, 2016, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


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"If you read [the Houston Chronicle's] Chemical Breakdown series on the poor oversight of Houston's repositories of toxic material, you already know that potentially dangerous stuff could be lurking in your backyard," according to an article by Lydia DePillis.

But the poor regulation of polluters in only half of a uniquely Houstonian threat: "That might be more common than it is in other Texas cities, according to a new analysis, because of Houston's longstanding resistance to zoning." 

The new analysis DePillis mentions is contained in a working paper by economists at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington, which examines the influence of zoning in the city of Chicago and several Texas cities.

Judging by the distribution of toxics-emitting facilities on a list maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency — which you can see for Houston here — the economists did find that polluters tend to be more densely clustered in other large Texas cities with fairly traditional zoning codes. In Houston, 65 percent of the city is within one mile of a facility in the toxic release inventory. That number is 30 percent, 44 percent, and 43 percent for Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas respectfully. 

As for why economists were compelled to chime in on matters of land use regulation, DePillis notes that homes near sources of pollution tend to have lower property values. Therefore, huge swaths of Houston are less valuable than they might have been if zoning had separated polluting industrial uses out from residential areas.

Monday, September 19, 2016 in Houston Chronicle

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