No, a zoning ordinance would not have necessarily protected Houstonians from the Watson plant explosion

Image credit: KHOU-11 (Houston)
Don’t buy the house, buy the neighborhood. – Russian proverb.
The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.Frank Zappa.

On Friday 24 January 2020, I got up as usual around 7:00 am, made myself a post of coffee, and mosied online to start my day of work. After about two or so hours, I took a break to check my personal emails and to take a brief scan of what was going on with social media before getting back to work. I found that several people had posted messages about a massive explosion that had occurred overnight somewhere in Houston. Eventually, the location of the explosion was revealed to be at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing plant on Gessner Road in northwest Spring Branch.

The explosion occurred around 4:25 am Friday morning, and caused quite a bit of damage to the areas near the plant. The Houston Chronicle reported that the explosion damaged some 200 homes and businesses around the plant. I can personally vouch from looking at my social media feeds that the explosion was heard and felt for miles around Houston. One couple I know who live west of Brittmore and near to I-10 – a distance of some 4-5 miles away from the plant – heard the explosion and were awakened by it. Many people posted images from their house cameras that registered the explosion, along with time stamps on camera images consistent with when the blast occurred.

As the day wore on, the usual responses started to kick in. Police and fire personnel converged on the area to do their bit, as did offers of charity help. Just as importantly, so did the lawyers. Attorneys Robert Kwok and perennial political candidate Eric Dick filed for temporary restraining orders in judge Tanya Garrison’s 157th district court to preserve evidence of the explosion, and those orders were granted. No doubt that lawsuits will be filed by those in the neighborhood (they likely have already) who were directly affected by the plant explosion for damages and insurance, based on legal negligence claims.

The political response was more muted, but there definitely has been one. Our always vigilant friends at Urban Reform posted two video clips of Houston City Council meetings that are worth spending a few minutes watching. In the first video, Mayor Sylvester Turner, speaking on the Spring Branch explosion, stated that

“Just because it was miraculous and we were blessed, does not mean we shouldn’t have a discussion on how we design and build this city going forward.”

In the second video, newly elected District A council member Amy Peck talks about changing the right to know laws, regarding information about potentially dangerous activities occurring in neighborhoods. Yet, so far there doesn’t seem to have been too widespread of an outcry over what happened.

Enter the Z-Word

In reading the subscriber and visitor posts at the Houston Chronicle, I noticed a few folks out there asserting that only if Houston had a zoning ordinance, this would have never happened! The story has also traveled. The New York Times wasted no time in publishing a story on Houston’s lack of zoning in connection with the explosion, while local real estate professor Matthew Festa of South Texas College of Law, who is often quoted in the media over Houston’s land use patterns, was quoted in this story that Houston already has some quasi-zoning type patterns.

Nice try. I vividly remember reading back in 2013 about the plant explosion in the town of West Texas, near Waco. There was a serious outcry back then amongst the Lefties that people are still getting killed in these events because those evil libertarians and conservatives don’t believe in anything common sense like, such as zoning ordinances! There was only one problem with that argument, and that was that the town of West Texas does in fact have a zoning ordinance. And, you can find out who the members of the zoning committee are right here.

Yet more to the point of why I’m writing this – why would a zoning ordinance not necessarily have protected people from a plant explosion like the Watson event in Spring Branch? The answer to this is several fold. First of all, zoning or no zoning, the plant explosion happened. The real things that would have been required to shield anyone hapless enough to have been nearby is either distance or perhaps wall barriers strong enough to withstand (or at least substantially contain) a blast from an industrial accident. A zoning proponent might argue that, “You see! You’re admitting that we are right! A zoning ordinance would have separated industrial facilities like Watson from the poor, helpless homeowners!” The problem, though, is that, zoning or no zoning, nobody truly knows how far away any particular industrial facility would have to be located away from other properties to be in order to provide enough distance to shield other property owners from potential harm (or damage) from accidents. What happens if permits are issued, but later the plant owners decide to expand their operations because they are successful in their business, and the amount of dangerous substances they are handling expands along with it? Suddenly, the old assumptions about what would be a safe operation are thrown out the window. What I am arguing here is a land-use version of Ludwig von Mises‘s economic calculation problem, and Friedrich Hayek‘s knowledge problem, wherein nobody would really know with absolute certainty what it would take to fully prevent the bad effects of a disaster or accident from harming other people and their property. Now, none of this lets Watson (or any other industrial or commercial operator) off the hook when something goes wrong; indeed what this incident shows is that Watson’s owners and executives seemingly did not act to do anything – or do enough – to prevent harm from occurring to neighbors. Yet it should give pause to anyone who thinks that a zoning ordinance would have prevented homeowners and business owners from suffering damage from an accident.

Another important reason why a zoning ordinance would not have necessarily prevented nearby property owners from being harmed is that zoning invites corruption! In the city of Chicago alone, which has a zoning ordinance about as thick as a phone book, dozens of Chicago aldermen have gone to prison because of zoning related corruption. Zoning corruption can occur in plenty of different ways, but one of those ways could be that property owner(s) of industrial facilities can easily find ways of persuading city council members, county commissioners, mayors, or aldermen to allow their operation to start up (or continue), even though their operations could easily be seen to be harmful in some way to neighbors nearby. All it would take is some smooth talking attorney working as a lobbyist to grease the permitting process along, perhaps requiring some judicious slipping of money to get the job done. Suddenly, elected officials find themselves being wined and dined on glamorous vacation trips, or with some big extra padding in their own bank accounts, their kid’s college savings funds, or perhaps some big contributions suddenly winding up in their campaign war chests, and Presto! A controversial project is mysteriously and magically approved.

Who was there first?

One other important aspect of the Spring Branch Watson explosion has not been discussed anywhere else, and it also relates to zoning. The question comes up as to who was in the area of Spring Branch first – was it Watson, or were the nearby homeowners and business owners there first? The company mentions on their own website that Watson was founded in 1960. Now, I grew up in the Spring Branch area, and know quite a bit about the history of Spring Branch. I also worked for several years at a data center nearby, and have a good feel for the neighborhood in question. The Spring Branch area of Houston is as old as the City of Houston itself, but Spring Branch began to make the transition from being an area of outlying farmers of German descent to becoming urbanized in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Watson, assuming that the company has always been at its current location (which can be researched and determined), would have been at the outer edge of Houston suburbia in 1960. To give you an example of what that area of Houston was like in 1960, Spring Woods High School, which is only a mile or two south down Gessner Road from Watson, was opened in 1964.

The question I am raising here is that if Watson was at its present location, and had indeed started operations first, then that would mean that any nearby businesses or homeowners effectively engaged in what is known in legal circles as coming to a nuisance. In other words, the affected property owners would have known in advance that they were located nearby a potentially dangerous industrial facility, and presumably were comfortable with being there. However, if the homeowners of the time were there first, and then Watson showed up, located there, and started business, then it would be another story. I should say here that raising a land-use question that originated from nearly 60 years ago should not have a bearing on the legal issues or the harm that was inflicted on those nearby from the Watson explosion.

Caveat Emptor

Sadly, since the explosion occurred, Watson has filed for bankruptcy, laid off 88 employees, and has filed in court petition papers to use insurance proceeds to pay off a bank loan. From the view of this layman, the prospects for nearby homeowners and businesses that were damaged by the Watson explosion to get some kind of compensation for damages they suffered are looking a bit grim.

Enacting a zoning ordinance at this point in Houston’s history would also invite a horde of other problems. Namely, how many other Watson-type facilities are out there within the City’s boundaries? It is likely that no matter how detailed a zoning map would be, untold thousands of homes and businesses would be out of compliance of any zoning ordinance that the City would  adopt. So, what to do from here? I can get on board with strengthening any Right to Know laws, as people can hopefully make better decisions on where to buy real estate in Houston and for what purpose. But, as always, the old wisdom of “whenever you buy a house, you buy the neighborhood” still applies and everyone needs to be aware of what is around them. Likewise, plant operators and managers would be wise to engage in self-buffering of their operations to protect themselves from liability in case something goes wrong.

Caveat emptor everyone, and that goes for other land use issues and problems as well.