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Debate continues over parkland dedication changes

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Both sides of the debate over a new Parkland Dedication Ordinance stayed late into the night to state their cases Thursday.

In the end, City Council voted to approve the ordinance 10-1 on first reading at 2:25 a.m. Council Member Don Zimmerman voted in opposition. The change in parkland dedication requirements and fees is more than a year and a half in the making.

Members of the development community warned that the proposed ordinance contained a “broken formula” that set an impossible standard that could lead to unintended consequences. Proponents pointed out that the current fees do not cover costs and delaying implementation of the ordinance would mean the loss of millions in parkland dedication fees and, ultimately, parkland for Austin residents.

The current fee-in-lieu is a flat $650 per dwelling unit, which has been in place since 2007. As Jo Clifton reported in the Austin Monitor on Sept. 22, the new fees would be dependent on the density of the development. “The proposed fee for low-density development of up to six units per acre would be $1,030 plus a park development fee of $521, for a total of $1,551 per unit,” she wrote. “The fee-in-lieu for a medium-density development of six to 12 units per acre would be $1,220, including the park development fee of $410. The high-density fee-in-lieu of land would be $626 plus a park development fee of $317, for a total of $943. Developments that are certified as affordable housing by the city are exempt from the ordinance.”

Both sides seemed to agree that an increase in parkland dedication fees was in order, since they have remained the same since 2007. However, there was some disagreement over the formula for parkland dedication requirements, which will increase from 5 acres to 9.4 acres per 1,000 residents.

Eric Goff, who is on the board of directors for AURA, argued that the proposed formula “punishes medium- and high-density housing.” As an example, he pointed out that, under the revised formula, a 60-unit-per-acre development would require a donation of 96 percent of the land as parkland.

“I can only assume that was an Excel error, because no one rational would propose that,” said Goff. He proposed instead that the dedication be based on a percentage of developed land and suggested that 10 to 14 percent would be reasonable, given existing parkland metrics.

Taylor Steed, who is a member of the Real Estate Council of Austin, also spoke against the changes. She said the new land dedication ratio set a standard “impossible to achieve.”

Shoal Creek Conservancy Board President Ted Siff spoke in support of the ordinance.

Siff assured Council that there was a “mechanism” within the ordinance that allows developers to pay a fee-in-lieu instead of dedicating land as an alternative method of compliance, and that the rules have been on the books since 1985. “If this mechanism was so terrible and so prone to unintended consequences,” he said, “we would have heard about those unintended consequences already.”

Confirming this point, Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley noted that, in cases where there might not be enough land to meet the dedication requirement, a fee-in-lieu was combined with things like trail connections and park maintenance as “opportunities to complete responsibility” for the dedication.

Many speakers pointed to a 2013 audit of the program, which showed that the parks department had waited more than five years to use parkland dedication fees 49 percent of the time, in violation of the ordinance.

Hensley explained that, since the audit, 99 percent of the fees had been spent. She said that one of the reasons it was hard to spend the money was that, at the previous rate, there just wasn’t enough to buy parkland or build playscapes, because the fees did not adequately cover costs.

“We could be trash cans, (or) we could put in new signs,” said Hensley.

Most of the people who spoke against the changes asked for a postponement that would allow time to hammer out the details of the new conditions with the parks department. Council opted to pass the ordinance on first reading, which will allow some time for those conversations to take place.

Proponents caution that too much time could lead to lost revenue for the parks department. Alison Alter, who serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, urged Council to move forward and said that if Council continued to delay the ordinance – pushing implementation to September of next year, instead of the planned January implementation – it could cost the city $2.7 million in dedication fees and 30 acres of parkland.

“You’re going to wait, and you are going to delay, and you are going to lose the funding,” warned Alter.

Council’s first reading approval comes with an extension of the dedication fee to hotel and motel uses. As approved, it also allows developers to obtain a determination in advance that stipulates whether the city will require a fee or land dedication. That determination is binding for a year. The ordinance also allows a portion of the impervious cover rights of the dedicated parkland to be used toward development, as those rights would not be fully used by the park.

As an explanation for his vote against the changes, Zimmerman said he had “huge problems” with the ordinance and expressed disbelief over city staff’s assertion that the increased fees would not lead to more expensive housing. He asked that the auditor look at the proposal to see if the numbers made sense.

“We have one of the worst bureaucratic quagmires in this city – in the entire state,” said Zimmerman. “We’re the most unaffordable city, we’re the most economically segregated city. We are so bad in our Byzantine stuff of conflicting ordinances, rules and bureaucrats trying to decide what to do, (that) developers have left our city, and they’ll never come here and build again. And that also drives up our cost. … I’m looking for a solution, and everything I’ve seen tonight is just making the problem worse.”

Council Members Delia Garza and Ora Houston both cast doubt on the idea that developers have fled the city.

Photo by Airainix (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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