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Concerned citizens and commissioners display disapproval at SOS amendments

Tuesday, August 22, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

On Wednesday night, it was standing room only at the Environmental Commission meeting as concerned citizens gathered to express their dissent over the Watershed Protection Department’s seven proposed amendments to the current Land Development Code.

Six of these stand-alone amendments were part of a collection of 47 amendments to the development code that were presented to City Council on June 15 and pertain to redevelopment exceptions. In June, 41 of these amendments were adopted, and the seven that were brought back to the Environmental Commission this week were deferred by City Council for further review.

Some of the amendments specifically pertain to redevelopment in the Barton Springs recharge zone, which currently complies with existing Barton Springs Zone Redevelopment Exception requirements. There are three different impervious ground cover limits depending on location the Barton Springs Zone.

Staff will not fold these adjustments to redevelopment in the Barton Springs Zone into CodeNEXT “so it won’t get lost or doesn’t get the focus it deserves,” said Andrea Bates, the environmental program coordinator at the Watershed Protection Department.

The six proposed redevelopment exception amendments would allow non-compliant sites with existing commercial development to keep their impervious cover as well as any development within creek and critical environmental feature buffers. Sites with 40 percent or less impervious ground cover would need to comply with SOS non-degradation water quality controls. Sites with greater than 40 percent impervious cover would need to implement on-site filtration controls as well as purchase off-site “mitigation land” to reach an overall impervious cover target of 20 percent.

Commissioner Mary Ann Neely seemed skeptical of using purchased “mitigation land” as a solution to problems caused by impervious cover. “The problem with the off-site is you still have pollution coming off the site,” she said.

Bates explained that the mitigation land is part of a new step-by-step approach to lessening watershed pollution. The current requirements mandate that sites using the redevelopment exception bring water treatment for the entire site up to code. According to Bates, “This can be a potential disincentive for smaller projects,” which is why only three properties have used the redevelopment exception since 2007. “By allowing an incremental approach,” she said, “we think that we can gain environmental improvements quickly that will accumulate over time.”

Hollon chimed in to say that the proposed amendments “did evolve from the SOS ordinance,” and that “we think that the more frequently it is used, the more positive outcomes there will be.”

Additionally, the agricultural amendment aims to reduce permitting complexity and costs for some agriculture developments as some farmers may not be able to afford engineering mitigation and permitting.

Commissioner Brian Smith expressed his concern about the amendment’s allowances for the potential quality of untreated agricultural run-off water being used as irrigation saying, “I think there are a number of ways that this can be detrimental to the environment.”

Commissioner Hank Smith also noted the complexity of this amendment as it would involve county approval. Bates responded to his concern saying, “If City Council approves it then we will take it through the county approval process.”

Commissioner Linda Guerrero questioned whether staff had conducted a proper approval process in the city of Austin. “My concern was that I didn’t see a lot of community people there,” she said referring to the stakeholder meetings conducted by the Watershed Protection Department. “It seemed to be an intimate gathering rather than an outreach.”

Bates said that the department took proper measures for stakeholder meetings since the city does not typically do “parcel specific notifications” for code amendments. Instead, she said, “over 330 people who are on the stakeholder list who have been receiving the email (since March)” were notified.

Amid the dissent being expressed to staff, Commissioner Peggy Maceo summed up the issue at hand saying, “The city made a commitment not to do away with SOS, so what are we doing here?”

Commissioner Pam Thompson agreed and circled the discussion back saying, “This would be better in a stakeholder meeting.”

Bobby Levinski, an attorney representing SOS Alliance, spoke to staff and the commission to further bolster the argument saying, “If there was a stakeholder process that agreed with these amendments we would have brought them back forward.” Otherwise, he said, these deferred amendments should not have been approved for a City Council hearing before stakeholders and commissioners agreed on their efficacy.

“That is one of my problems with this whole thing,” continued Thompson, “We have just now heard from 200 people that were not informed about this even though it directly affects their lives.” She was referring to the show of 16 Querencia at Barton Creek senior citizens who were directly in opposition to an amendment that would allow developers to utilize the redevelopment exception for small multifamily residential developments.

Lauren Ross, a community member and environmental engineer in Austin since 1983, reminded the commission that the SOS Ordinance was passed with a 64 percent margin despite being a highly contested and prolonged campaign, and now, 25 years later, the Watershed Protection Department is arguing for change in “language (that) is really similar to the language used in opposition to the SOS Ordinance.”

After two hours of discussion, Chair Marisa Perales paused the commentary to hold up a thick stack of speaker cards and say, “Everything seems a little too tenuous.” When she confirmed that everyone who wanted to speak had spoken, she made a motion to not support the passage of the amendments. The motion was passed with a vote of 7-2. Commissioner Hank Smith and Commissioner Andrew Creel voted in opposition, with commissioners Brytne Kitchin and Wendy Gordon absent.

Commissioner Hank Smith spoke post-vote saying, “I think we’re taking the easy way out and not coming up with a recommendation for improvements.”

City Council is expected to take up the seven amendments at its Oct. 5 meeting.

This story has been updated to more accurately describe the package of amendments.

Photo by Todd Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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