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City studies changes to allow aggregates in commercial projects

Monday, November 4, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Changes to commercial landscaping requirements that previously prohibited the use of aggregate materials in commercial projects are on the way.


Though the process is still in the early stages, the city is taking a serious look at how it treats aggregate in commercial projects. Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak predicts that a code change could be adopted by August, 2014, at the earliest.


Though aggregates remain increasingly popular in Austin due to both aesthetics and drought, they are widely prohibited in commercial development.


The Environmental Board unanimously embraced the change by voting 6-0 to approve a staff memo on the subject. Board Member Mary Ann Neely was absent


Earlier in the year, members of the landscaping community brought forward concerns about commercial design standards. Subsequently, City Council asked that staff work with them to review the requirements. Aggregate materials are any non-plant based materials used for ground cover in landscaping, where “mulch” is plant-based.


“I think there needs to be some coordination between city departments. If you have a house, you can take out your planting bed and put in aggregate, whereas in commercial they are not letting you do it,” said Board Member James Schissler. “This is one design feature in the palette that landscape architects use that they should be allowed to use.”


After several meetings with stakeholders over the summer, staff concluded that the current standards could stand some modification while still meeting city environmental and sustainability goals. In a report that will be presented to City Council, staff recommends the limited use of aggregate as a soil cover in commercial landscapes.


“I think we heard the landscape community, and I believe we can provide some flexibility. I think we should respect their expertise, but I don’t think we should just blindly respect their expertise,” said Lesniak. “Maybe this is a first step. If this goes well, maybe we’ll go farther.”


“Right now, what we are recommending is that we allow aggregates as a soil cover, using criteria that addresses those negative impacts,” said Lesniak.


Lesniak explained that code criteria currently prohibits the use of aggregate instead of mulch as soil cover for commercial development. It can be used as a “landscape feature that cannot predominate over plants,” a criterion that is vague and fairly confusing.


Lesniak explained that while it does have some benefits, aggregate also has issues. These include increased storm runoff associated with decomposed granite and potential for a “heat island” effect when it covers a large expanse.


He said that after meeting with the landscaping community, he learned that they largely share these concerns, and are willing to work to mitigate the potential negative impact of using aggregate.


Landscape architects argue that the current code does not have enough design flexibility, that aggregate is what their clients prefer, and that it has a lower maintenance cost overall. Additionally, everyone seemed to acknowledge that aggregate reduces water consumption, which is a strong plus during an extended drought.


Lesniak confirmed that a perception by the landscape community that the rules were inconsistently applied seemed to be true. He said that city departments seemed to understand the rules differently, though he hoped that would change through continued discussion.


The board added conditions that asked staff to clearly list the benefits of aggregate mulch, allow aggregate mulch in “any condition” irrigated by storm water runoff” and involve stakeholders in the process of developing specific recommendations.


The board also asked staff to establish clear Alternative Equivalent Compliance standards while revisions are worked out and asked that they minimize disincentives to creating attractive, water-efficient landscapes that can replace managed turf.


Eric Schultz, who first brought the issue to the board’s attention in January, praised the stakeholder process that took place over the summer and said that he looked forward to clearing up a few absurdities that currently exist in the code.

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