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Consolidation of city/county rules no panacea

Friday, October 17, 2003 by

Sonleitner points out governments not consolidated

Stakeholders may be getting what they asked for in the consolidated city/county subdivision ordinance, but it seems likely that many members of the development community will never be entirely happy with the changes.

What developers wanted was a consolidated ordinance for new subdivision plats in the extra-territorial jurisdiction. But as Commissioner Karen Sonleitner told stakeholders at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting, a consolidated code does not mean combined government. Final approval still lies with the city and county governments.

Stakeholder Hank Smith wondered how the process could be seen as easier if a developer must still seek separate approvals from city and county government.. He said developers don’t want to be caught in a situation in which the city and county turn out to be at odds with one another.

“I get it,” said Sonleitner of Smith’s concerns. “You don’t want to have to play a game of hide-and-seek. But this was never intended to obliterate separate governments.”

The city and county are distinct governments with distinct viewpoints, Sonleitner said. “This was not about consolidated government; it was about consolidated code,” she said.

The law, under House Bills 1445 and 1204, offered four options for cities and counties to handle plats in the ETJ: All of it could belong to the county. All of it could belong to the city. The two sides could divvy up various areas of jurisdiction. Or the two sides could agree to a one-stop shop concept for approval concerning a common ordinance.

The ordinance is complicated and lengthy. Austin’s Environmental Officer Pat Murphy was only half-joking when he said the city and county would probably need to write an “idiot’s guide” to how the development process would actually work under the ordinance.

Over the next month, the staff behind the ordinance will go through the painstaking process of taking feedback on it from stakeholders and commissions, as well as a final sign-off by the City Council and Commissioners Court.

At a stakeholder session on Monday led by city and county staff, Harry Savio of the Greater Austin Homebuilders Association and attorney Rick Reed, a member of the Real Estate Council of Austin, offered feedback to staff. The group went through the ordinance section-by-section, trying to make sure the sections were easy to follow and internally reconciled.

Among the concerns cited by Savio and Reed:

• That ETJ subdivision plats do not adopt more regulations than necessary. Some city regulations may apply in the areas awaiting city annexation, while others, like the city’s tree ordinance, should not apply in the county’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. The city and county have already agreed that the city’s water quality regulations will apply under the ordinance.

Reed said there should be “no expansion of the city jurisdiction that isn’t clearly intended.”

• That dual inspections and dual fees do not occur. Developers want to be clear on who will be inspecting plats or making site visits. City and county leaders have yet to decide how inspections will work. County officials have put up $100,000 for an independent audit to review duplicative functions and fees. At a luncheon on Tuesday, City Manager Toby Futrell said the city would contribute staff time, but not money, for the completion of an audit.

Developers said they wanted “one consolidated voice,” Reed said.

• That the two sides have a clear process for resolving disputes between the city and county in the one-stop office. The consolidated ordinance gives the developer, or either side, the right to appeal. If the staff in the one-stop office cannot resolve conflicts, the issue is bumped up to department directors for the city and county, Murphy said.

Murphy said most conflicts have been resolved at the staff level. Conflicts are discussed and resolved at a weekly meeting. Appeals have been bumped up to the department head level only a couple of times since the offices were combined, he said.

• That the distinction between the limited-purpose annexation areas and extra-territorial annexation areas are clear. Reed questioned whether the two areas would be dealt with differently, or with different staff, given the different regulations.

Stakeholders will provide written feedback on the 181-page ordinance over the next two weeks. County commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on Oct. 28.

EB recommends variance for Home Depot on FM 620

Plans for a Home Depot at 7900 N. FM 620 have garnered a positive recommendation from the Environmental Board. The developers of the site requested a variance to the city’s cut-and-fill regulations to ensure proper drainage. The variance approved by the board will allow the construction of the Home Depot and make it easier for the developers, Bury+Partners, Inc., to preserve several large trees on the 24.8-acre tract.

Much of the surrounding land has been set aside for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan by the owners, leaving only a small portion of their holdings in the area suitable for development. A survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Department determined that the proposed Home Depot location was not suitable habitat for either the golden-cheeked warbler or the black-capped vireo. However, there are several caves near the site, which Environmental Board members wanted to ensure would be protected.

There are three critical environmental features on or within 150 feet of the site. Development setbacks for one cave and two sinkholes were established during the subdivision review process. The developer will be required to both stop work if any voids or sinkholes are discovered on the property during construction and provide a general strategy for dealing with voids should any be encountered.

Staff provided eight conditions for the cut-and-fill variance, including a prohibition on the use of coal tar-based parking lot sealants. The board also required that hazardous materials, including some types of chemically treated lumber, be stored in an enclosed area to avoid the risk of leaking contaminats into the Bull Creek Watershed.

Board Vice Chair Tim Jones, acting as Chair in Lee Leffingwell’s absence, offered his thanks to both the developer and the staff for their work on the project. “It used to be that this board would lay out all the conditions for a variance,” said Jones. “Now, we don’t have to do that anymore, because the staff knows what we’re going to ask for. I think it speaks volumes for the effectiveness of this board and the staff.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

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