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Lawmakers to tackle local construction regulations during special session

Monday, July 17, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

Local control was a recurring theme during the 85th Texas Legislative session, and many of those policy debates will continue during the upcoming special session. When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the 20 items that will be taken up by lawmakers, some of them seemed plainly targeted at city of Austin policies.

“Some local governments like the city of Austin are doing everything they can to overregulate,” Abbott said. “In the process, they are stifling our economy, interfering with job creation and undermining private property rights.”

One of those items deals with preventing local governments from changing the rules midway through a construction project. This item doesn’t appear to be tied to a specific bill from the regular session, but the idea is gaining support from industry representatives who say those unexpected regulations often come up in the building process. Scott Norman is the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders.

“Whether they be changes to building code, impervious cover requirements or tree ordinances, things like that, those things, if they are changed once a project is underway, it can have a drastic impact,” Norman said.

Norman said confusion over regulations often comes into play when building in suburbs, places that may fall under multiple jurisdictions. Those areas are some of the most rapidly growing in Texas.

Abbott has also called on lawmakers to take up legislation to speed up permitting by local governments. It’s a process that has been notoriously slow and convoluted in Austin, but the city has taken steps to address its permitting backlog. Later this year, it’s set to open applications for a new expedited permitting process, a program that will offer a speedier review in exchange for a fee. Brenda de la Garza with the Development Services Department explained how the new program will work.

“Through the expedited program, you have all of your review, which is done in four hours for a commercial project and two hours for a residential project,” de la Garza said.

She said so far, the city has tested the program on five projects. All of them got their permits overnight, as opposed to the typical wait of several weeks. The expedited permit program is set to open to the public by October.

Norman said programs like these can be a step forward, but he takes issue with Austin requiring builders to abide by certain construction worker protections when using the expedited program. Lawmakers will take up those issues when the special session begins on July 18.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/ KUT.

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