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Environmental Commission gets chance with CodeNEXT updates, concerns

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

CodeNEXT is the talk of the town. So it’s no surprise the main topic of conversation at the Environmental Commission meeting Wednesday evening was no different. The commission heard recommendations from the Watershed Protection Department, but took no formal action on the suggestions presented.

Erin Wood, principal planner with the Watershed Protection Department, said CodeNEXT is an overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code. Wood reminded commissioners that its main aim is implementing the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan that was adopted in 2012.

The five major themes included in Wednesday night’s CodeNEXT discussion were water stewardship, flood mitigation, urban forest preservation, open space and parks, and nature in the city.

One of the more controversial recommendations came from environmental policy program manager Sue Barnett. She said that said she and her team drafted the recommendations for the city’s landscape code because they didn’t see any indications in the initial plan to do so.

“The Commercial Landscape code currently is 20 percent of the street yard,” explained Barnett, “and we were hoping that with (the CodeNEXT rewrite), we might be able to do a little bit better as far as actually integrating nature into the city.” She said her team is urging people to think about existing trees before designing their project.

Some solutions, Barnett explained, would be to provide vegetated buffers for compatibility and design medians to infiltrate storm water. The more debated addition, she said, would require upfront planting zones in the area between the edge of a sidewalk and the building face.

Commissioner Peggy Maceo saw potential conflicts with the third recommendation. She referenced Bluebonnet Studios on South Lamar to support her concern.

“There’s 12 feet from the building to the curb and there’s a little bit of landscape,” Maceo described, “but that’s not very much room for people to walk (or) to plant any trees to make it a pleasant place to walk.” She said while some tree species might fit, the requested design wouldn’t allow for large, shading trees.

The deadline to submit concerns and recommendations to the initial draft code is June 7. Those comments will then be considered for the second draft, which will be presented in September. The initial deadline for zoning map comments, however, is July 7.

And while that deadline is important, Lauren Ice of the CodeNEXT Advisory Group urged commission members to consider passing a resolution that would slow down the code’s process.

“There’s a lot of information out there that we don’t have yet,” Ice said. “So to really submit thoughtful comments is pretty difficult right now.”

Slowing down the process, she said, would give the advisory group more time to properly examine and incorporate any public comments, recommendations or programs in its final submission.

Information concerning the watershed modeling, for example, is vital in determining whether the map and code are accomplishing what they’re meant to do, she said. Those details, Ice said, have yet to be published.

Given the environmental concerns and the impacts some residents will face, Ice also encouraged the commission to require that CodeNEXT be submitted through the city’s equity tool, as it would encourage more community-led engagement before the first deadline.

“Now that the maps are out, people are waking up and realizing (CodeNEXT) will impact every person in the city.”

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

This story has been updated to include the second deadline for comments from the public

Photo by Roy Niswager made available through a Creative Commons license.

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