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City mulls planning review time fix

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Changes to the way the city processes development applications sailed through the Planning Commission last week, and the city hopes that the changes will effect a similar swiftness in its Development Services Department.

Donna Galati, who is with the Development Services Department, said the changes are part of a larger effort to streamline development review processes, as recommended by the Zucker Report.

The proposed ordinance would change application expiration dates from 180 days with a 180-day extension – which Galati notes is “always automatically granted” – to a one-year expiration with no extension.

It will also establish a “stop-clock provision” that pauses expiration dates for projects that have cleared administrative hurdles only to be hung up by public hearings. Up until now, explained Galati, those hangups sometimes forced applications to be resubmitted, which she said “does nothing more than add tremendous amounts of cost and time” for both the applicant and the city.

Galati pointed to one recent South First Street case in which the application had to be resubmitted three times due to hiccups in the boards-and-commissions process. Each time, the case was redistributed through the departments with a new case number. That new case number, she added, made it look like the site had three different cases on it as a result, which complicated gathering information and doing research on the property. The stop-clock provision, she explained, would have allowed the case to “sit there” instead of expiring (and prompting the ensuing complications).

Planning commissioners voted 10-1 to recommend the ordinance to City Council, with Commissioner Michael Wilson voting in opposition. Commissioner Tom Nuckols was recused.

The change from two 180-day expiration dates to one 365-day expiration date might seem like an uncontroversial simplification, but it did prompt Chair Stephen Oliver to question why “reviews last nearly a year in nearly every case” in the first place.

“Our code is extremely complicated,” said Andy Linseisen, who works in the Development Services Department. He explained that evaluating a site plan can involve up to 12 departments and routinely involves 28 sets of plans. In that context, he said the answer to Oliver’s concern was ultimately the CodeNEXT rewrite.

“Our code is not simple. The reviews we do are not simple. And we’re all hoping that CodeNEXT will make it easier,” said Linseisen. “We are balancing tremendous growth with the principles of Austin. … Working out those differences between the different priorities in the code is challenging. Unfortunately, that involves our applicants having to work through that with us.”

Oliver said that he understood the complexity but warned, “If we don’t shorten the review times, we are not going to get better development.” He explained that, currently, people who would like to redevelop their property are discouraged by the cost of a yearlong site-plan review.

“They do everything they can for a site-plan exemption process. So they minimize the level of improvement to their property for the betterment of their community, when they were willing to do it,” said Oliver. “A year should never be a good approach.”

Linseisen agreed that staff has no desire to have permits for a year, either, and is working on ways to reduce that time. “We’re trying our best to implement the recommendations and be on time. … We’re just asking for reasonable timelines to help us do that,” said Linseisen.

In addition, the ordinance would change the way time is tracked, to count only work days rather than all days. Linseisen explained that the current method of tracking, for example, puts the department behind schedule from the outset in cases filed over long holiday weekends. “Even just days could make a big difference in our performance measures,” he said.

As written, the ordinance will also remove the staff review time from the Land Development Code and instead define it by administrative rule. Public Works Department Director Howard Lazarus, who is also an ex officio member of the commission, weighed in on the change and said his department was “certainly comfortable with only looking at exceptions to criteria and exceptions to standards.”

“We’ve got some great professionals at the city, with great managers and directors,” said Lazarus. “If there’s a concern about empowering the staff, it’s not something you should worry about, it’s something you should encourage. Because it will help site plans move more quickly. … I think the process is moving in the right direction.”

In terms of moving from code to administrative rule, Linseisen said staff hadn’t heard much feedback from the community but was expecting it. A public hearing is scheduled to be held on the code amendment at the March 31 Council meeting.

Photo by Sarah Ross made available through a Creative Commons license.

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