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City and county continue work on changes to subdivision ordinance

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County and the City of Austin are trading amendments on the joint city-county subdivision ordinance, frequently referred to as Title 30.

The City of Austin wants Travis County Commissioners to consider amendments to the Critical Water Quality Zone, as it is applied to the Colorado River buffer. Travis County’s Anna Bolin introduced the CWQD amendment, saying that it would extend a current city requirement to the area along the Colorado River in Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

Right now, the critical water quality zone is inside the Colorado River inside the flood plain. That presents a quandary for the city, said Bolin, who is with the Transportation and Natural Resources Department.

“Essentially, the way that the Critical Water Quality Zone is measured currently out on the Colorado River is from the center line of the stream,” Bolin said. “The proposed change would have it measured from the ordinary high water mark to either 200 or 400 feet beyond the ordinary high water mark.”

The city said the new measurement method would preserve more of the physical and ecological integrity of the river which, in turn, preserves the recreational and economic values along the river. At the bottom line, the new measure will both protect water quality and river bank integrity, priorities for the county’s water quality ordinance.

“They also state a benefit of it being a preservation of the riparian habitat, conducive to maintaining the historic character and having potential recreation and trail opportunities along the river,” said Bolin, adding, “There are a couple of things that we’re looking at.”

TNR and county commissioners have some concerns, including the impact such changes would have on existing sand and gravel operations. (Those will be grandfathered.) And the new buffer zone could affect those in the existing 100-year floodplain. (It appears 91 percent of those in the expanded buffer area are still in the 100-year floodplain.) A variance process will be put in place for property owners who believe the ordinance places an undue burden on them.

“There is a possibility of there being an adverse impact on the county if we were to build new parks along the Colorado River because there are certain uses – such as parking – that are not permitted in the Critical Water Quality Zone,” Bolin said. “So what we would recommend doing is just talking with the city and asking them to amend the environmental section of the code and the environmental section of Title 30 to allow for certain uses such as parking in the Critical Water Quality Zone on the Colorado River if it’s something like another jurisdiction with a master plan park or something of that nature. And we have already started talking to the city about our concerns there.”

Executive Manager Joe Gieselman noted the county already had been working with agencies up and down the Colorado River to create a greenbelt with access points where people, possibly in canoes, could stop along the shore for recreation or lunch.

“For instance, one crossing we’re considering right now is State Highway 130,” Gielseman said. “We would envision, at some point, having a boat ramp down to the Colorado River to allow people to get in a small craft and go downriver. I think LCRA calls it the Colorado River Trail, in part because they are using the waterway as a trail.”

Commissioners were concerned about the potential impact on owners along the river. Commissioner Ron Davis noted the recent sale of particular properties in the area in lieu of cleaning them up. Davis was told that as long as the purposes inside the buffer were recreational, the owners were still safe.

“I think they were basically looking at some of the uses for canoe rides and stuff for children, things of that nature,” Davis noted. “But, always, I wanted to make sure this is consistent, across the board, if we are going to look at that buffer area.”

County Judge Sam Biscoe asked whether an assessment of takings had been completed. He was told the county’s current survey of the issue was preliminary. A full report would not be required until after the initial hearing on August 5. The impact likely will be minimal because much of the property is in the flood plain.

A second proposal, put forward by Travis County to the City of Austin, would require a fuller notification process for variances to final plats or site plans outside the city limits. Bolin said, in the county’s estimation, the notification sent out by the city on variances in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction was not detailed enough.

“It’s a very compartmentalized tally – it might say commercial or industrial – but it doesn’t give you information as to what use is going to be on the property,” Bolin said. “What we are proposing is that the city adopt the same public notification requirements in the ETJ as they have in the City of Austin corporate limits.”

The only way for the county to direct such a change is to have both county commissioners and City Council adopt it. County commissioners agreed to forward the proposal to the City Council.

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