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Water quality groups wade carefully into CodeNEXT debate

Thursday, November 2, 2017 by Jack Craver

While the Austin environmental community appears divided on what to do about CodeNEXT, three green groups say the proposed overhaul of the Land Development Code will strengthen water quality protections in a number of key ways.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Save Barton Creek Association, Clean Water Action and Environment Texas highlight some of the new water quality policies included in the second draft of CodeNEXT that they hope will be included in the final draft that City Council is likely to vote on this spring.

The current code draft includes language requiring new developments to put in place green stormwater infrastructure, such as rain gardens, permeable pavement and rain collection cisterns, to reduce stormwater runoff.

Developers will also be required to show that the “runoff peak flow rate” from the parcel will not increase as a result of a new development or redevelopment. The current code only requires drainage improvements for redevelopments if they lead to an increase in impervious cover. The result is that buildings that were built before the Save Our Springs Ordinance was passed in 1992 can be redeveloped without complying with the same drainage standards as new developments.

“Aging strip malls along major streets that were built without water quality controls or stormwater features are major contributors to local flooding and water pollution,” says David Foster, Texas Director of Clean Water Action, in the statement. “It is imperative, as these properties are redeveloped, that they incorporate GSI features to reduce these harmful impacts.”

The three groups urge for additional water quality provisions to be added to the final draft of the proposed code.

They suggest the new code require any developments over 5,000 square feet of impervious cover to include water quality measures, down from the current 8,000-square-foot threshold. They also call for more stringent stormwater regulations for “missing middle” residential developments, such as fourplexes, which CodeNEXT is intended to encourage.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Angela Richter, executive director of Save Barton Creek Association, said her group would not take a position on CodeNEXT and noted that her group collaborates with groups on different sides of the debate. She declined to say whether she believed densifying the city would benefit the environment.

Instead, she said, “we want to make sure that if the city densifies over time, that that development is done responsibly.”

While some environmental groups have enthusiastically embraced the principles of smart growth and new urbanism, arguing that Austin needs to embrace denser development patterns to discourage sprawl and facilitate mass transit, others remain skeptical – or have at least stayed away.

“We aren’t working on this one,” Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment told the Monitor in an email. “Letting others get mired.”

Roy Waley, the chair of the Austin Sierra Club’s Conservation Committee, said that it was unlikely that the group would take a position on the contentious code rewrite, despite “a lot of pressure” from groups on both sides of the issue.

Instead, said Waley, the Sierra Club will be focused on the environmental regulations in the code. Environmental standards should be the starting point for development regulations, he said.

He and most of his fellow activists appreciate the positive role that density can play in decreasing sprawl and, therefore, driving.

“(But) it’s a matter of balance,” he said. “If we say we’re going to have density but we densify in a way that doesn’t help transit but it harms us from an impervious cover standpoint and a flooding standpoint, what have we accomplished?”

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

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