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Council ponders interim ordinance to move stalled projects forward

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members are set Thursday to take action on an ordinance that would offer an interim process by which developers with expired site plans could seek an extension. If approved, the measure would solve a problem created when, under legal and legislative pressure, Council repealed the city’s Project Duration Ordinance earlier this year.


At Council’s regular Tuesday work session, Council Member Kathie Tovo expressed concern that Planning Commission had not vetted the idea. “I really rely on that sort of careful and thorough review that our land-use commissions provide,” she said.


Tovo and Council Member Laura Morrison shared further thoughts with In Fact Daily after the meeting. Tovo echoed what she told her colleagues. “At this point, I’m really just trying to understand the implications of (the new ordinance),” she said. “Which is one reason I thought it would be useful for it to go to the land-use commissions for further review.”


For her part, Morrison noted that a replacement for the Project Duration Ordinance should not be prosecuted in piecemeal fashion. “I agree with (Tovo),” she said. “The bottom line is we have a big discussion in front of us about the new ordinance that is going to come forward on Project Duration and I’m very hesitant to suggest that we can just pick out one small part of it without seeing it in light of everything else.”


Council Member Bill Spelman brought the ordinance forward with Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Spelman told In Fact Daily via email “This won’t bring our code into compliance with state law, but it will solve our problem for the easiest cases – those begun since 2006 that were in compliance with all city codes at the time they were submitted. I can’t see any value in making these easy cases wait for months while we hash out what to do about the hard ones.”


Until it was repealed in March, staff used the Project Duration Ordinance as a replacement for state grandfathering rules that were inadvertently repealed in 1997. When members of the Texas Legislature corrected that issue in 1999, Austin City Council members left the city’s rules in place. Under the ordinance, construction permits expired after a period of either three or five years.


The repeal of existing rules essentially leaves staff with nothing official in that regard, at least until Council members pass new rules. That effort is underway. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 23, 2013.)


Environmental advocates worry that the absence of the Project Duration Ordinance could lead to the gutting of strong city regulations (a rarity in Texas) such as the Save Our Springs Ordinance.


Spelman and Leffingwell’s ordinance would offer developers a means to reactivate expired permits – another process lost when the city’s Project Duration Ordinance was repealed. It would not be a permanent solution to the debate over grandfathering, one that promises to go on for some time before Council members settle the issue. Rather, it would grant Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey the ability to, “under certain conditions,” continue a site plan.


According to the ordinance, those conditions are that the original application must have been received by Jan. 1, 2006; that it expired under the city’s former Project Duration rules; and that the project be properly zoned and “not subject to a notice of construction.”


At Tuesday’s work session, Spelman told his colleagues that he expects staff will have some idea of how many and what type of properties the temporary rules might affect in time for Thursday’s meeting.


Council is set to vote on the idea Thursday. If approved, the new rules would expire on Sept. 1, 2014.

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