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Ann Cass, of Proyecto Azteca, is pictured far left at the 'Las Colonias in the 21st Century' conference in McAllen on Friday, July 31. Cass said there would soon be "exciting news" about new model subdivision rules for Hidalgo County.

EDINBURG, RGV – Hidalgo County is to change its planning rules in an attempt to cut down on the proliferation of flood-prone subdivisions and colonias in rural areas.

Under the proposed new plans developers who want to build more than a mile from a drainage ditch will likely have to build an on-site retention pond capable of handling a 100-year storm.

Details of the proposed rule changes were discussed at a planning meeting held at the county’s health and human services office in Edinburg on Monday. Planning Director T.J. Arrendondo gave a power-point presentation on the need for change. The slideshow included photos from the recent heavy flooding in and around Edinburg.

“We are working on having our subdivision rules in the county upgraded to address drainage requirements in the rural areas,” Raul Sesin, drainage director for Hidalgo County, told the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of the meeting.

“We want development to continue in our county but we do not want the development to be in areas that flood, which puts our residents in harm’s way and also absorbs a lot of our manpower when we have to go and pump the water. Ultimately, it is the end user that we are most concerned about. We want them to reside in a good area and a nice subdivision. We want them to have peace of mind.”

Community groups that work with colonia residents are delighted Hidalgo County is working on toughening its model subdivision rules.

“The proposed changes for the model subdivisions in Hidalgo County will truly begin to make them ‘model’ subdivisions,” said Ann Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca. “The Equal Voice Housing Working Group, having struggled for years to prevent the proliferation of model subdivisions without drainage, commends the County Planning Department, Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 and County Judge Ramon Garcia for proposing these changes.”

Cass alluded to the rule changes while speaking on a panel discussing colonia housing at a conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas at the McAllen Convention Center last Friday. The conference was titled Las Colonias in the 21st Century – Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border. “There will soon be some exciting news,” Cass said.

Asked afterwards what the exciting news will be, Cass urged reporters to attend Monday’s Hidalgo County planning department meeting to find out more. “The new rules will not solve the drainage issues we have with our existing colonias but it will keep the proliferation of new colonias down,” Cass told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Hidalgo County is using the health code to change the rules because it has not been successful in getting changes adopted through the Legislature. County Judge Ramon Garcia has said this is the argument he will use for the change,” Cass said. “Before a developer will be able to go and develop a model subdivision they are going to have to be close to an outflow and they are probably going to have to put in a very large retention pond, like McAllen has on 2nd Street. The drainage district will take over the ownership and the liability. It will be able to be used for parks and it will be there to take care of the water drainage. I think it is really tremendous, a great breakthrough after all these years.”

Drainage Director Sesin was asked how the new subdivision rules might work. “It depends on the location you are developing, within distance of a drain ditch, what kind of requirements we are going to have, either to pipe the water out of the subdivision into the ditch or, if you are not within a one-mile radius we are proposing that you do an on-site retention pond capable of handling a 100-year storm to retain the water and keep it off the lots and the homes.”

Sesin added: “We are looking at the drainage basin as well that is impacting a development to make sure we are not just focusing on the small portion of a big issue. It could be a bigger area that is contributing to that development’s flooding. We want to make sure that we manage that and make sure we do a better job of reviewing those type of improvements and keep the engineer and the development company up to date on what is happening in the changes we are doing to make sure we capture that water properly.”

Right now, Sesin said, model subdivision rules have to allow for a 25-year storm requirement. “We are increasing it to 100 years. It may take more land to retain that much water on the site when there is no outfall, so that is really the biggest impact it is going to have. We are also looking at the overall drainage of an area and what is contributing to it. That could make some property undevelopable. It might take up too much area to develop but if that is the case, well maybe you should not be developing until there is an outfall in place that allows that development to be developed.”

Asked if the new rules were being crafted in response to the recent heavy rains in Edinburg, Sesin said: “We have had issues prior to these recent storms. When we had (Hurricane) Dolly we had some issues and we addressed some of them. With (Hurricane) Alex, we had issues and we addressed a lot of them. Even with these recent storms we are addressing a lot of them already through the bond monies we have. But we have been improving our subdivision requirements these past years to try to prevent these issues from happening.”

Sesin was appointed director of drainage by Hidalgo County Commissioners Court last February. Proyecto Azteca’s Cass said he deserves a lot of praise for working the new subdivision rules. “Raul Sesin understands how many resources and how much energy the county has to spend draining colonias after severe flooding. More importantly he understands the impact flooding has on people. He is much more sensitive to the needs of colonia residents. He and the County have come up with a wonderful solution.”

Cass said she expects to see Hidalgo County Commissioners Court hold a workshop about the new subdivision rules in the coming months.

Speaking at the Las Colonias conference, state Sen. Eddie Lucio spoke about the frustration he has experienced in trying to pass legislation to give border counties greater authority to control rural development.

“For years, developers were allowed to exploit the innocence of those who needed affordable housing and were allowed to sell lots and build colonias without providing the types of basic service that most of us take for granted – water, wastewater, electricity, and drainage to name a few,” Lucio said, in his keynote speech.

“In Austin, we fight special interests to pass laws directing counties to make sure that developers provide basic services, yet how often have you read in the papers that the model subdivision rules have been enforced at the local level? Unfortunately, too often those laws are not enforced by border counties.”

Lucio said the Legislature has passed laws to outlaw the exploitation of colonia residents through predatory land sales practices like contracts for deed. However, he said these practices continue along parts of the border.

“Our cities have not done enough to provide affordable housing. The result is the proliferation of ever more colonias that sprawl all across our rural areas, create severe transportation problems for people, and impose increasing tax burdens as our school districts struggle to finance new schools to serve distant and remote colonias.”

In her interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Cass agreed that the Legislature has not been able to help border counties very much when it comes to stopping the proliferation of substandard subdivisions.

“We have never been able to do anything legislatively to do with planning and zoning in the county. The new rules will take care of that,” Cass said. “I am thinking, as a result of this, that developers are going to be forced to build closer to the ETJs. It will be less expensive for them, which is going to start giving us densification, which gives us more opportunities for public transportation. I think it is huge.”

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