About Us

Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism

Boards face tough choices

Thursday, April 26, 2001 by

In Impervious cover debate

Changing assumptions could threaten affordability

Members of the city’s Environmental Board are having second thoughts about their recommendation to change city impervious cover regulations in light of new information on the negative impact those changes could have on affordable housing. Lee Leffingwell, chair of the Environmental Board, said Wednesday there will be a item on next week’s board agenda to reconsider a recommendation to rewrite impervious cover assumptions for new single-family subdivisions.

In December, the board recommended that the assumptions on lots in the 5,750 to 10,000 square feet category be changed to reflect the fact that almost 40 percent of the houses built in that category have more impervious cover than predicted by the assumptions. The information was collected in a survey done by the city’s Watershed Protection Department.

The Planning Commission voted last week to follow a city staff recommendation and adopt a wait-and-see approach to changing the impervious cover assumptions. Leffingwell and Commissioner Joyce Conner attended the Planning Commission meeting. Conner stressed the need to accurately reflect the basic trends revealed in recent analyses of lot development.

Last May, in the wake of the Bradley settlement agreement, the City Council asked that city staff find a system to more accurately measure and control impervious cover on single-family lots.

Patrick Murphy of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department told the Planning Commission last week that tracking is especially difficult in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Outside the city, he said, the only requirement for lot development after a plat is accepted is to pull a county permit guaranteeing that the lot is not located in the FEMA-designated flood plain.

Monitoring could be done, according to the Council resolution, through City Code amendments or the use of restrictive covenants. A review of more than 500 lots across the city elicited some calls to increase impervious cover assumptions in several lot-size categories to reflect current development practice. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 7, 2000, Dec. 14, 2000)

Murphy did not recommend new ways to monitor lots or employ restrictive covenants. Both would be cumbersome and difficult to enforce, he told commissioners. Trying to correct impervious cover issues on a home or homes in a subdivision after people buy those homes “is something the city would rather avoid if we could,” Murphy told commissioners.

He also pointed out that many of the new homes being built are in the Desired Development Zone rather than in the Drinking Water Protection Zone. Thus, many of the lots in the range of 5,750 square feet are already grandfathered under previous zoning regulations.

Terry Mitchell of Milburn Homes and Dominic Chavez of the Real Estate Council of Austin both suggested that the hike on requirements could cut out 20 percent of the lots in a smaller affordable subdivision, passing higher costs on to homebuyers. Mitchell estimated the average cost in a 230-lot subdivision could increase by $4,000 to $6,000 per lot.

Commissioner Sterling Lands told his colleagues it was unfortunate the discussion had gotten down to a standoff between affordable housing and clean water.

“We may say things to make it more palatable,” Lands said. “If it’s going to cost us more money, we need to go back and look at the cost-benefit analysis.”

Lands said he wanted to see more hard data before he agrees to raise the bar on small size lots. Commissioners Ben Heimsath, Betty Baker, Ray Vrudhula and Silver Garza supported him. Stuart Hersh, who runs the city’s SMART Housing program, told commissioners the department had decided to study the issue further in light of the potential costs Mitchell had mentioned.

Commissioners Jim Robertson, Lydia Ortiz, Jean Mather and Robin Cravey voted against the motion to support the staff recommendation. Cravey, who served on the subcommittee that studied the impervious cover issue, offered a motion to bump the impervious coverage up to 3,088 square feet of developed land, the average indicated in the city’s study.

“We wanted to move our assumptions to match the actual number that staff found in their investigation,” Cravey explained to his board colleagues. Robertson added, “As decision makers, it would be improper for us to take a number which is statistically-based and modify it for policy reasons. It may well have impacts for affordability, but we need to find ways to address affordable housing and not tinker with the numbers to help meet our affordability goals.”

One alternative recommendation on the table, proposed initially by Garza, was to split the difference on lot size. Garza suggested an impervious cover requirement of 2,500 square feet on lots between 5,750 and 7,000 square feet. On lots of 7,000 to 10,000 square feet, Garza supported the staff-determined average of 3,088 square feet. More impervious cover means developers have to devise better mitigation measures. Heimsath said the adjustments are working, but acknowledged that changing impervious cover assumptions, even in a modest manner, could have an unintended ripple effect on other aspects of the city’s development code.

Planning Commission approves

North Austin neighborhood plan

North Austin Civic Association wants 'moderate' zoning changes

Zoning changes for the city’s latest neighborhood plan sailed through the Planning Commission last week, the culmination of two years of work in North Austin.

The 1,584-acre North Austin Civic Association Neighborhood Plan is the largest the City of Austin has accepted to date. Commissioners considered the two dozen changes on various parcels to be, as Commissioner Robin Cravey suggested, a “very moderate plan” concerning zoning changes.

The NACA neighborhood plan is bounded by Kramer Lane on the north, North Lamar Boulevard on the east, Research Boulevard on the south and Metric Boulevard on the west. The plan encompasses neighborhoods within the sphere of the North Austin Civic Association, North Growth Corridor Alliance, Park at Quail Creek Homeowners Association and Taking Action Inc.

Scott Whiteman of the city’s Zoning and Planning Department took to the podium to discuss the zoning changes, the result of work between the neighborhood and city staff since 1998. Whiteman said goals included maintaining and enhancing existing zoning for future development, preventing additional commercial development in residential areas, maintaining the residential core and encouraging the reuse and redevelopment of property. The plan is also intended to direct future growth along Lamar Boulevard as a “Great Street,” according toa city staff recommendation.

“I really want to thank you for the time and your support for getting us to this point in our journey,” said Karen Dunlap, who at one time served as planning team chairman. “These changes do reflect the consensus we were able to build through our process, and we do believe they further our goals in the further maturation of our neighborhood.”

Two dozen tracts were impacted directly. Each tract covered multiple properties along Kramer, Prairie Trail, Wagon Trail, Sagebrush Drive and North Lamar, among other streets. The zoning changes varied from multifamily, single family and light industrial to various zoning designations under the Neighborhood Planning Combining District. Half the properties were rezoned CS-NP, or commercial services-neighborhood plan.

“They haven’t really asked for much,” Cravey said in the discussion of the plan. “They could have asked for a lot more, especially in the area of parkland.”

More than a third of properties in the North Austin neighborhood plan are single family homes. Another 15 percent are used for multi-family residences. The city’s SMART Growth Initiative includes an option to add a Neighborhood Plan Combining District to the entire planning area. The purpose of the NPCD would be to allow residential infill and mixed-use development if the City Council adopts the neighborhood plan as an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Commissioners agreed that some of the compatibility issues might need further clarification. Commissioner Jean Mather suggested, and got, a 25-foot vegetative buffer south of a particular group of townhomes. Chair Betty Baker also wanted some assurance that the NP designation would not wipe out existing historic zoning on two properties that fall within the plan.

The commission unanimously approved the NACA neighborhood plan. Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who praised the work accomplished by the committee, said he wanted to see additional work on the plan beyond zoning. Heimsath asked that the appropriate boards and commissions address the community’s two major requests—acquiring additional green space and securing additional solid waste services.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mueller apparently safe . . . The House of Representatives yesterday approved an amendment to SB 304 by Lucio, regarding the State Aircraft Pooling Board, eliminating Mueller as a possible site for general aviation in the future. The bill was approved on second reading Wednesday. Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition was happy. “That was great news,” he said, expressing gratitude to Rep. Dawna Dukes and Mayor Kirk Watson “I’m glad that Rep. (Ron) Wilson recognized that Mueller has got some other potential,” besides being an airport, he said . . . New Bradley bill . . . Mayor Kirk Watson is circulating a draft proposal for a Spillar Ranch tax district that eliminates the points he found objectionable in legislation presented by Rep. Rick Green (R-Dripping Springs) and Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria). The Mayor’s assistant, Kristen Vassallo, said, “There’s no bonding authority, no eminent domain. We’ll have an opportunity to give some money to the schoolchildren of Hays County.” In the new version, the City of Austin would appoint three City Council Members to serve on the initial seven-member board of directors for the district. Two members of the Hays County Commissioners Court and two members of the school board would round out the initial board. Vassallo said Watson has gotten positive feedback from Hays County Judge Jim Powers and members of the HCISD board . . . ACLU director to speak . . . Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas, will discuss where we stand, where we are likely to end up, and “which legislators are wearing the white hats and who has on the black Stetsons,” at a noon luncheon Friday at Furr’s Cafeteria Longhorn Room, Northcross Mall. The public forum begins with lunch at 11:30 am. . . Griffith wants zoning changes tracked . . . City Council Member Beverly Griffith will ask the Council today to begin tracking the city’s zoning and rezoning activities. The goal will be to show trends in zoning changes around the city and provide insight into market directions. The analysis will be performed by city staff and included in the publication of “Growth Watch” which reports on development trends. It will be available on the web at

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top