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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Changes coming for Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance
Thursday, June 27, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
The culmination of a two-and-one-half-year project involving countless stakeholder meetings is nigh, and amendments to the Watershed Protection Ordinance are on the way.
After a comprehensive presentation on the proposed changes, the Environmental Board opted to postpone its vote until the July 17 meeting. The extra month will give the board time to review the massive amount of information associated with the proposed amendments. Members voted 6-0 to postpone the amendments, with Board Member Jennifer Walker absent.
“It’s a huge change that they are proposing. It’s necessary in the long run, and we’ve not done this since 1986. We’re now at 2013. It’s definitely due,” said Chair Mary Gay Maxwell.
Matt Hollon with the city’s Watershed Protection Department explained that the biggest changes will be in the suburban watersheds, to the east of the city, which are home to 78 percent of Austin’s undeveloped land.
“We look to this area to be a major area of change in the decades to come here in Austin. Most of the other watershed areas have been built out – they will continue to have redevelopment but this SH130 corridor… will be an area of greater change.”
Hollon explained that any changes and regulations will have more of an impact in the suburban watersheds for just that reason. Though there will be changes for the whole of Austin, the majority of the changes will take place in the suburban watershed.
Currently, there are not the same critical water quality zones in the east as in the west. Though they were included in the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance, they had shorter buffers that did not extend as far upstream as those in the west.
Hollon told the board that the city had spent over $30 million repairing erosion-damaged stream channels alone, at a cost of $1,000 per linear foot.
“We’re very proud of these projects that we’ve done, but we really can’t afford to just continue,” said Hollon. “Our ordinance is expressly set to prevent the type of expenses you are seeing here in the future, from new development in these waterways.”
Even so, Hollon explained that the majority of undeveloped properties – 70 percent – would not be affected. An analysis of the suburban watersheds shows that, for the undeveloped properties, 1,989 would gain Impervious cover, 7,308 would see no change, and 1,186 would lose impervious cover.
One proposed change that may garner some controversy is the decision to base calculations on gross site area, instead of net site area like in the west. (Gross site area is the entire parcel of land, while net is only the usable area of a lot.)
Hollon explained that gross site area is simpler, with net site calculations sometimes leaving very little buildable area after all is said and done. He explained that buffers, water quality controls, steep slope protections, the landscape ordinance and compatibility setbacks will continue to provide environmental protections even with gross site area as a standard.
Hollon said the “signature ordinance change” is the extension of headwater buffers in the suburban watershed, saying, “We are basically getting 90 percent more stream mileage protection with that one move.”
In essence, the buffers will be like those already in place in western Austin, eliminating the system of two buffers, and putting in place one buffer that takes stream headwaters into account.
Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak allowed that there might be some properties eligible for grandfathering, but was hopeful the new regulations would be widely used.
“In these watersheds, there are not as many old subdivisions, old plats, and old preliminary plans that might be grandfathered. I’m sure there are some out there, but there are probably less of them,” said Lesniak. “And because of the streamlining of the ordinance and design of it, my guess is there will be some people that might be eligible for grandfathering that might choose to not take it, because it will be under more complicated development rules.”
Glen Coleman spoke on behalf of the Real Estate Council of Austin about some of their remaining concerns. He pointed to the “emptiness of the room” as evidence of a successful stakeholder process.
Coleman asked staff to reconsider requiring subsurface inspections be performed by licensed engineers, which could be costly. He also expressed a desire to continue discussion about rules guiding development in floodplains, particularly concerning trails.
Hollon explained the major storm water changes to the code will be in phase II of the rewrite. However, there are some changes in this phase.
Currently, if sites have more than 20 percent impervious cover, the owner must also build water quality controls. Under new regulations, the percentage will be changed to a square foot threshold, with buildings over 5,000 square feet requiring water quality controls. (This is currently the practice in the urban watersheds.)
Coleman said that while there was agreement on changing impervious cover restrictions from a percentage limit to a square foot limit, he was unclear why the threshold “suddenly” went to 5,000 square feet in June, when it was previously 8,000 square feet.
Hollon encouraged those interested in the topic to look at online materials which address the (lengthy) amendments in greater detail.
“There are definitely going to be changes with this ordinance,” said Hollon. “If your property is near a buffer, one way or another you are going to have some slight or large impact.”
Board Member James Schissler broke it down even further.
“You say we’re doubling the amount of area that’s protected? So, we’re taking all that land from the property owner and making it open space. That will protect the environment right off the bat,” said Schissler, who noted that even with increased impervious cover on the land, increased water quality protections will balance out environmental impact.
The resolution is scheduled to return to City Council at the end of August.
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