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Environmental Commission defers CodeNEXT 2.0 recommendation

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

With the third draft of CodeNEXT slated to be presented to the public on Nov. 28, Watershed Protection Department staff hoped to receive a recommendation of approval from the Environmental Commission for the completed second draft on Nov. 1. However, after a long and contentious debate, the Environmental Commission voted unanimously to recommend that “the proposed timeline for consideration and adoption of the draft code be delayed to allow the City staff, the Equity Office, the Environmental Commission and members of the public to fully analyze, consider the impacts, and engage with the community regarding the proposed code changes.”

The discussion is back on tonight’s meeting agenda.

To try and ease the overwhelming sense of urgency surrounding the approval of the second draft of the CodeNEXT proposal at the Nov. 1 meeting, Matt Hollon, the Planning Division manager at the Watershed Protection Department, explained to the commission, “After really looking hard at (water controls) since draft one, we found that we needed a simpler, more straightforward proposal.”

“Our main big change is on the drainage side,” he said. With drainage issues being exacerbated as build-out across the city increases, Hollon said that water controls have become “a really big policy issue.”

He also answered the inevitable question before it was even asked. “We don’t have a change in our flood mitigation strategy yet,” he said.

Despite admitting to having no answer to flood prevention, Dr. Lauren Ross, a civil engineer, asked the question of city staff anyway. She explained that since the 1970s, Austin’s Land Development Code has required peak flow mitigation. “We as a city have pretended,” she said, “that if we limit peak flow, we address the increased flooding problem from the new development.” However, according to the numbers based on increases in impermeable groundcover citywide, though the peak flow rate hasn’t increased, the volume downstream has.

Although there are currently no mitigation solutions for Austin flooding, the drainage changes presented by Hollon were a comprehensive redefinition of what qualifies as stormwater controls for site plans with more than 80 percent impervious cover as well as for those with less than 80 percent, such as single-family residential subdivisions and residential-heavy areas. Properties with less than 80 percent impervious cover account for 95 percent of the properties within the city’s 208,000 acres. Hollon said the reasoning behind this change is because “We didn’t want to blanket this and say one size fits all.”

Today, site plan projects require some sort of filtration system and Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) is optional. Building permit projects (single-family residential with less than 45 percent impervious cover) have no required water quality controls. In draft two, the aim is to make GSI the expectation at sites where conventional controls are used today.

In the current approach, the city requires stormwater controls at sites with three or more units to have a site plan. “But almost nobody does it because it’s expensive and onerous,” said Hollon. As a result, the second draft of CodeNEXT is eliminating site plans for developments with three to six units and replacing them with a single building permit. The exception to this convention is the Barton Springs Zone, which already has a unique set of ordinances.

To help enforce and correctly implement the GSI controls that are planned as the new standard, Hollon said that the Watershed Protection Department is suggesting that a professional drainage engineer visit builds or redeveloped sites to provide oversight and certify that the drainage is flowing through the proper channels.

Inspectors would not have to prove that there is no adverse impact, only that the drainage flows are properly directed. “I don’t know how big of an administrative burden that’s going to be,” he said. “It’s not a perfect solution, but we think it’s going to solve some problems.” However, he did say that most projects do not have drainage issues right now.

Commissioner Wendy Gordon said that while many projects do not experience issues, if rainfall trends continue and “if we get an eight-inch rainfall in an hour, all bets are off.”

Commissioner Pam Thompson echoed her sentiment saying, “I think there are going to be all kinds of issues what with rainfall and changing weather.”

Outside of changing weather patterns, Commissioner Andrew Creel said that having professional oversight for GSI controls is the ideal path forward. “Generally, people don’t understand the impact of water. If you put this on the builder, the development, or the homeowner, they can say no adverse impact, but what do they know?” he said.

To help everyone understand the potential impacts of improperly routed drainage and flooding, Pinaki Ghosh, chair of the EMLK Combined Planning Area Contact Team, told the commission, “Let’s do some simulation to understand what happens when all this water hits these little channels. What happens when the big channels – like Waller Creek and Boggy Creek – get blocked?” he said.

Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and one of the last speakers from the community, summed up the discussion saying, “Are we just riding a train into a brick wall? If it’s not substantially better than current code, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

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

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