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County adopts sidewalk fee-in-lieu program

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Developers in unincorporated Travis County will now pay the price for not building sidewalks.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court approved changes that will establish a sidewalk fee-in-lieu program similar to the one operated by the city of Austin.

Chapter 82 of the Travis County Code mandates that developers outside of any city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction must submit a sidewalk plan. Staff reviews the plans and determines whether to require sidewalk construction on a case-by-case basis.

Historically, if a given project is not proximate to pedestrian trip generators for example, schools, churches or transit stops or if the local topography is forbidding, the requirements to build pedestrian infrastructure have been waived.

The court’s unanimous vote on Tuesday amended Chapter 82 to include a fee-in-lieu requirement that will charge developers each time they secure a waiver. The money will be used to fill in the sidewalk network gap in developed parts of the county, particularly east of Interstate 35.

“It’s extremely important for us to be concentrating on solving the sins of the past and looking to the developer community to assist us in that,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. She also noted that the change creates “a level playing field” for those developers who score sidewalk waivers and those developers who don’t.

Anna Bowlin with the county Transportation and Natural Resources Department told the court that the fees will align with the city’s program, which breaks payments down based on land use. The city charges $7.50 per square foot along single-family projects, $18 per square foot near multifamily buildings and $24 per square foot for all other uses. The fees collected on any given project will only be used to construct sidewalks within the same precinct.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, whose Precinct 3 includes the hills and gullies of western Travis County, invited a developer in the audience to approach the dais to share his perspective.

Daugherty asked Rainer Ficken whether he thought the proposed fee-in-lieu was a fair deal. Ficken replied that the requirement to build sidewalks on both sides of a street in areas where the topography is too steep, narrow or otherwise challenging can be a burden.

“To have to be charged because you didn’t put a sidewalk on the opposite side of the roadway that didn’t serve any purpose perhaps would not be fair, but otherwise I agree” with the proposal, he said.

Bowlin said that TNR staff would likely use discretion and only charge the fee in the absence of any pedestrian connectivity.

In addition to amending Chapter 82 of the county code, the court’s vote also seeks to change Title 30 of Austin’s Land Development Code, which governs subdivisions in the extraterritorial jurisdiction. To initiate that, the county will send a letter to the city notifying staff of the request, which will then be reviewed by the relevant boards and commissions.

Upon motioning for approval, Commissioner Brigid Shea requested that county staff bring an update on the program to the court every six months. The motion was carried unanimously.

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Yan Kennon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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