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Changes coming to watershed protection rules

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Staffers with the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department are working on a major reconfiguration of the city’s watershed protection ordinance that will redefine floodplains and provide better protections for creek headwaters.


Updates to the more than 20-year-old document – a now very-dated attempt to protect fragile water features – figure to impact development and growth.


City environmental program manager Matt Hollon said key changes to the ordinance include the extension of critical water quality zones around floodplains, provisions that will eventually bring the ordinance in line with the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan; expanded buffer zones around streams; improved storm-water control measures and changes to mitigation options. The new rules are tempered with stipulations that call for minimized impact on future development and consultation with Travis County officials.


Hollon told In Fact Daily that watershed protection officials have conducted outreach efforts directed at the many stakeholder groups associated with potential changes to the code. He added that those meetings have been continually well attended and key portions of the community have bought-in to some important new provisions.


Hollon said his department got “all As and Bs” from the stakeholders for their work on the new rules. “We had Home Builders Association, we had the Real Estate Council of Austin, we had the Austin Contractors and Engineers Association, we had Sierra Club, we had the whole gamut,” he adds.


“Does that mean everybody’s going to love it when we put it in writing? We’ll see.”


Hollon said the ordinance will reflect a hard fought attempt at balance. “In the end, I’m hoping that we come in with a package of things that we’ve balanced out, and that people say ‘wow, you’ve protected the most sensitive areas, and you’ve allowed development to move forward in these other areas, and that sounds like you’ve struck the right balance,’” Hollon said.


Council passed the original watershed protection ordinance in 1986. Even then, some environmental activists argued that it wasn’t enough. “These were smart people with good ideas and they actually did an amazing job framing in something, frankly, we’re going to be continuing to use in a large part,” Hollon said. But he added, “They didn’t have all of this knowledge that we now have 25, 30 years later.”


Changes began in the late ‘90s with the city’s Watershed Protection Master Plan. That document made it clear that the city needed to fix many of the buffer zones that will be addressed by the pending changes to the ordinance, Hollon said.


Still, revisions were slow in coming. Then, in 2010, Hollon said a resolution from the city’s Environmental Board kicked things in gear.


Since then, Hollon said that his team worked closely with the city’s planning staff in developing changes to the watershed protection ordinance.


Much like Imagine Austin, Hollon said the new watershed document is an opportunity for the city to define itself. “It has to do with: What is Austin? What do we look like? What’s the shape of Austin?” he said. “If you’re a 1980s planner and maybe an environmental person, you’re shaping it to be like suburbia. …Now, 20, 30 years later, we realize that is – depending on who you are – working OK or it’s working poorly. Nobody is going to say it’s awesome.”


Hollon said that a draft version of the new ordinance will be ready for public meetings planned during the next few months. He said he will be set to give Council members an update on his efforts this spring, and he suggested that he and his team could appear before Council by June for consideration of the proposed changes to the ordinance.

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