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Commercial Landscape Ordinance earning broad support

Thursday, December 9, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Last November, in response to one of the worst and most prolonged droughts the region had ever experienced, the City Council passed a resolution directing staff to develop an ordinance that would require commercial storm water runoff to be directed to landscaped areas. No longer should rainfall running off rooftops be directed to storm drains, supporters of the ordinance said; instead, that rainfall should be used to nourish the trees, grass, and shrubs planted on commercial sites around the city.


Staff is now just a little over a week away from presenting their ordinance to Council. At the end of October they brought it to the Environmental Board and left with unanimous approval. Last night the Water and Wastewater Commission gave their support to the measure, and Tuesday will find staff at the Planning Commission. Council will then vote on the measure next Thursday.


Under the terms of the ordinance, all new commercial construction – including offices, commercial lots, multifamily units, schools, churches, etc. – will be required to direct storm water runoff to at least 50 percent of their required landscaped areas. Contractors and property-owners can also use non-required landscaping as long as it is equivalent in size to 50 percent of the required area.


By law, all commercial properties in Austin have to have a certain amount of landscaping to provide buffering, screening, and urban heat island abatement. That landscaping relies almost entirely on potable water irrigation to survive.


Watershed Protection Department Environmental and Conservation Program Manager Matt Hollon estimates that one-third of future land uses in the city’s urban core will be affected by the ordinance. “It’s meaningful; it’s not just a tiny handful of commercial sites,” he told In Fact Daily. “We think this is going to start the ball rolling toward more sustainable green sites and improve water conservation and water quality.”


Hollon said that the ordinance is a logical extension of the landscaping requirements passed in the Eighties. “It’s kind of pointless to require landscaping be put in and then let it die, so they require irrigation,” he said. “So what you’re doing is making people use a lot of water to keep these things alive. They have to ship in potable water for the landscaping, which uses a lot of fossil fuel and a lot of treatment. We should have them redesign their sites to redirect storm water into their landscapes and down into the soil so it does some good.


“Storm water is the best water for plants, and it doesn’t draw down the lakes in the process.”


There are several ways property owners can be in compliance with the measure, including putting in rainwater-harvesting units, disconnected downspouts, and rain gardens.


Under the current law, sites are required to permanently irrigate their perimeter landscapes. The proposed ordinance will give property owners the option not to do so. However, temporary irrigation will be required for two growing seasons, and permanent irrigation will still be required for all new trees as well as medians, islands, and peninsulas.


There is some flexibility built into staff’s proposal. For example, variances will be allowed for unique site conditions, such as topography, size, shape, and location of existing features.


According to Hollon, that flexibility is the result of long discussions with skeptical stakeholders. After staff presented their initial version of the ordinance to the Environmental Board in June, the board convened a subcommittee to help make the proposal more detailed and more reflective of stakeholder input. That subcommittee met five times over the course of this summer and fall, hearing from, among others, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Contractors and Engineers Association, and various landscape architects, engineers, property owners, and contractors.


“We got tons of feedback,” said Hollon. “And that’s how we made the main changes, like dropping the landscape requirements from 100 percent to 50 percent. We also added the two-year provision, so everyone would know we’d come back and listen to them again if they had issues or trouble with the ordinance.”


That provision states that “staff will report to City Council two years after adoption about the effectiveness of the ordinance, including recommendations for improvements or amendments.”


Hollon believes the two-year provision will both help convince developers and contractors to support the ordinance and prepare them for an eventual shift toward more rigorous standards.


“I want to talk to the guys who are nervous about putting this in and say, ‘Look this is not going to affect very much of your site. You really could just literally put in some downspouts from your roof across the grass area, and you check the box off and you’re done’” he said. “And right now people don’t do that, so it’s really about a shift in consciousness.”


“We want people to choose which part of their site this will work best on and experiment with it for two years,” Hollon continued. “We want it to work well and get people ramped up, and then they’ll see they can do it.


“Our expectation is we will find that this is doable and then we’ll be able to increase the percentage of the site where this goes on,” Hollon concluded.

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