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City of Houston v. Commons at Lake Houston, Ltd.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

October 15, 2019

CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
THE COMMONS AT LAKE HOUSTON, LTD., Appellee

          On Appeal from the County Civil Court at Law No. 1 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 1109638

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost and Justices Wise and Hassan.

          OPINION

          KEN WISE JUSTICE

         The Commons at Lake Houston, Ltd. sued the City of Houston for inverse condemnation and a declaratory judgment regarding a newly amended ordinance that regulates development in the 500-year floodplain. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, contending that The Commons' claims were not ripe. The trial court denied the plea. We reverse the trial court's order and render a judgment dismissing The Commons' claims without prejudice.

         I. Standard of Review

         Ripeness is a component of subject-matter jurisdiction, which may be challenged by a plea to the jurisdiction. See Riner v. City of Hunters Creek, 403 S.W.3d 919, 921-22 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.). When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the pleadings, we review de novo whether the pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction. Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, we consider the relevant evidence submitted by the parties. Id. at 227. If the evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, then the trial court rules on the plea as a matter of law, id. at 228, and we review the ruling de novo, see id. at 226.

         II. Background [1]

         The Commons owns a roughly 318-acre tract of land near Lake Houston. The Commons has begun development of the land into a master-planned community known as "The Crossing." Significant portions of The Crossing are located within the 100-year or 500-year floodplains.

         The City has approved several general plans for The Crossing, and The Commons recorded subdivision plats consistent with the general plan and a final plat for part of The Crossing. The City approved a drainage plan and construction plans concerning water, sanitation, sewage, drainage facilities, and paving for part of The Crossing. The Commons began working on water, sewage, and drainage lines, investing millions of dollars towards amenities for the development of The Crossing.

         In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the City passed Ordinance No. 2018-258 to amend the existing floodplain development ordinance in Chapter 19 of the City's Code of Ordinances. The old ordinance required that new residential structures within the 100-year floodplain had to be built at least one foot above the flood elevation. Among other changes, the new ordinance requires that new residential structures within the 500-year floodplain must be built at least two feet above the flood elevation. See Hous., Tex., Code of Ordinances §§ 19-2, 19-33, https://library.municode.com/tx/houston/codes/code_of_ordinances.

         The Commons sued the City before the effective date of the ordinance and ultimately asserted claims for inverse condemnation and a declaratory judgment. The Commons alleged that the application of the amended ordinance to its property would substantially damage the market value of the property, and the current development plan would be unfeasible.

         While the suit was pending, a person who worked on the The Crossing project for The Commons-Stephen Sheldon-emailed a managing engineer who worked for the City about what impact the "Vested Rights" statute[2] might have if a general plan had been filed for a master-planned subdivision. In the email, Sheldon wrote, "I'm hoping you might be able to answer a question related to the ordinance that I'm having trouble tracking down." Sheldon concluded:

I realize you aren't an attorney, but I was hoping either this had come up already in internal discussions (in which case you might know the answer as to whether [the statute] applies) or you might be able to forward this e-mail to an attorney who worked on this ordinance, who might have this answer. Trying to do some advance planning for a couple of large tracts, and want to make sure I plan correctly!

Sheldon did not mention The Commons, The Crossing, or any details related to The Crossing.

The City's engineer responded in relevant part:
You are right, I'm not an attorney. What I can tell you is that while the plat would in fact be grandfathered and would not have to be re-platted due to the ordinance change, the particulars of the improvements (requirements for elevation of structures and mitigation requirements) are not part of the plat. The required elevation of structures and grading plans including required floodplain storage mitigation can only be grandfathered if that particular ...

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