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Revised Watershed Ordinance clears Environmental Board

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Changes to the city’s Watershed Protection Ordinance earned unanimous support from the Environmental Board last week after the measure endured a stakeholder process that lasted nearly two-and-one-half years.


The revisions are the first major changes to the city’s ordinance since 1986.


After a long discussion, the board sent the changes along to the Planning Commission, which will review them before sending the new ordinance on to the City Council. The biggest changes will be in the suburban watersheds, which do not currently have the same level of regulation as the urban watersheds.


Board members only had three amendments to what is an impressively comprehensive proposal. As a matter of housekeeping, they added language that would allow transit stop improvements to be included in a provision that allows small (less than 5,000 square feet) roadway improvements without on-site water quality controls or impervious cover limits. Things like bike lanes and minor improvements to intersections were already accounted for in the ordinance.


Board members also asked that language related to redevelopment exceptions be removed – at least for the time being. Though staff and stakeholders have been working to refine ordinance language that would encourage redevelopment of non-compliant sites without encouraging bad behavior by developers, all sides seemed to agree that they weren’t quite there yet.


Watershed Protection Department staff says that any changes and regulations in the ordinance will have more of an impact in the suburban watersheds to the east of the city because most of the urban watershed has been built out. 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 kinds of critical water quality zones in the east as in the west, but as development grows along the SH 130 corridor, there will be more pressure on the watershed in that region.


Annie Armbrust, who is the Director of Public Relations for the Real Estate Council of Austin, said that, for the most part, RECA was happy with the balance struck by the proposed changes.


“I do see this as sort of a balancing act, like a Jenga tower,” said Armbrust. “There’s one issue that remains unresolved for us at this point, which is around the redevelopment exception… We don’t think, as it is right now, it’s acceptable… There’s a barrier there, for redevelopment.”


Armbrust called the current language a missed opportunity.


“I’m confident we can work with the stakeholders here and come up with something,” said Environmental Conservation Program Manager Matt Hollon. “We would like to come to a place that makes sense.”


Armbrust told In Fact Daily that RECA would continue to work on the section of the code with staff.


Based on the concerns of those who spoke at the meeting, the only other sticking point was language that some feared would allow trails too close to waterways.


The board also addressed this point. As part of their recommendation, board members asked that trails only be permitted in the part of the critical water quality zone farthest from the creek, now labeled the half-critical water quality zone. In addition the trails must be outside the erosion hazard zone and should only be in the critical zone when there is no other area they can be established.


Commissioner Marisa Perales questioned the choice to base calculations on gross area in the suburban watersheds, instead of net area as is done in the urban watersheds.


Environmental Policy Program Manager Jean Drew explained that current science shows the most important steps the city could take to preserve stream quality is inclusion of stream buffers. Those small waterways were previously unprotected in the east, and Drew said that the impact of switching from net to gross area was small in comparison.


“No one else uses the net site area. That is something we came up with here that isn’t a nationally-recognized system. It’s not something that has analyzed scientific merit,” said Drew. “What we did find was that, universally, the recommendation of between a 50 and a 200-foot buffer was what the science was saying was the best way to protect the creek.”


Hollon said he was confident the new regulations would make a difference in restoring waterways.


“Honestly, the moment you stop baling hay and get the cows out of creeks – that’s a moment when actual vegetation can start growing and repairing the creek on its own,” said Hollon. “We’re seeing urban creeks with the most beat-up, longest-standing, trampled banks coming back, Lazarus-like, after a long time of real abuse.”

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