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Despite consensus, park dedication fees delayed

Monday, December 21, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

To the apparent disappointment of all sides, a long-lingering proposal to change the city’s Parkland Dedication Fees was postponed by City Council on Thursday.

Council Member Leslie Pool pushed for the postponement of the changes and explained that she needed more time to review the compromise that stakeholders and the Parks and Recreation Department had struck since the last time the issue was taken up. Council voted unanimously to postpone the case to its Jan. 28 meeting.

Pool said that she hoped the changes could be heard in the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee in January before Council discussed it again and that she was “chagrined” to request the delay, as she had been prepared to vote in favor of the ordinance that had passed on first reading in November.

Shoal Creek Conservancy Board President Ted Siff pointed out that when the ordinance was passed on first reading, the stakeholders were encouraged to meet and work out their differences, which had happened.

“You are faced with the challenge every citizen is faced with every time any agenda item comes to Council,” said Siff. “What you are considering today was posted last Friday, and this is Thursday, and so I would have hoped you would have had time to review it.”

“Literally hundreds of hours of free time have been donated by all of the stakeholders who participated, and we’ve achieved a consensus,” said Siff, who warned that further delays could put that consensus at risk. “There’s not only fees lost in this potential delay, but the consensus that you encouraged stakeholders to achieve.”

Pool said the backup was late, and she had not had sufficient time to review it. “That’s an issue for me and my staff,” said Pool. “Significant changes have been made, so I am looking for a little bit of time to review that.”

Pool also pointed to the fact that she did not have a copy of the ordinance, only an ordinance amendment review sheet that explained the changes and the language that would be included in the ordinance. Randy Scott, park development coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department, told the Austin Monitor that city legal was in the midst of drafting an ordinance but that effort was put on hold on Tuesday when the department learned it would be postponed.

“This has been pushed very quickly, and it really deserves a little bit of breathing space,” said Pool. “I am not taking anything away from your efforts, but I do want to follow process here, and I do want to see the ordinance.”

In addition to the changes that have been on the table since spring, the parks department is now recommending five new amendments. Those amendments establish criteria for dedications in the newly defined “urban core,” where a fee-in-lieu is the default for projects not located in a parks-deficient area. They also clarify procedures for fee refunds and allow for appeals when the parks director has required parkland dedication (instead of the fee-in-lieu) and for increased credit for privately owned parkland that is open to the public.

AURA’s Eric Goff asked for a short delay the last time the issue was taken up. Since then, the group has spoken with parks department staff. He also asked that Council move forward with the changes since “the substantial issues had been resolved.”

“There were multiple meetings with parks staff, AURA, the parks community, parks advocates, real estate developers and others that sat through at least three meetings (and) hashed out what I think is a good compromise,” said Goff. “I look forward to y’all supporting that next year as early as possible.”

Council Member Sheri Gallo, who participated in the meetings about the fee changes, said she looked forward to supporting the new ordinance in January. She read off a list of participants in the talks, which included representatives from city staff, the Austin Apartment Association, Downtown Austin Alliance, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, Real Estate Council of Austin, AURA, Austin Parks Foundation, Hill Country Conservancy, Shoal Creek Conservancy, Waller Creek Conservancy and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

“It was really a massive effort by the whole community to move forward on this,” said Gallo.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley said she was disappointed by the delay but understood the need for time to review. She said, if nothing else, the experience has “uncovered an opportunity to work more collaboratively” on issues in the future. She confirmed that her department was recommending the revised ordinance.

The last time the dedication fees were adjusted was 2007. The Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee recommended changes to the fee schedule in May, with Council approving them on first reading in November. Proponents of the increased fees have warned that delaying implementation of the new schedule could mean the loss of millions for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Austin-skyline” by Mwyzykowski0821Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

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