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CodeNEXT: City says few environmental surprises in store

Monday, January 8, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Conversations today about the city run like clockwork: You can guarantee that at some point CodeNEXT will be mentioned.

However, although it is spoken about with regularity, there are so many varying opinions, stances and regulatory improvements being presented that it becomes difficult to track, let alone understand, the changes that are being made in each department. In hopes of offering a simplified perspective on the environmental side of the subject, the Austin Monitor sat down with City Arborist Keith Mars and Matt Hollon, manager of the Watershed Protection Department’s Planning Division, to unravel the complexities of the code and understand the intentions behind the language.

According to them, Austinites are in favor of protecting the environment, and the bulk of the environmental regulations that are hopefully being placed into the code come February are intended to do just that.

Both Mars and Hollon explained that Austin already has a stringent set of drainage, green fill and environmental ordinances. “We are really pretty far ahead of most communities” since Austin has always been a consciously environmental city, Hollon said.

The challenge going forward, explained Mars, is that the rapidly changing development patterns are outpacing the Band-Aid-like regulatory measures that have been overlaid on the outdated 1980s city code. Although these remedial ordinances are more in line with today’s citizens’ expectations, they need to be organized into a more cohesive presentation.

Mars said that not much is actually changing on the tree side except incentives programs to maintain trees rather than replacing them. On the broader environmental side of things though, bigger changes are being made as preventive measures are being woven into the code. “We wanted them to create projects for the long haul with not only good water quality and flood control, but that also lead to ambient cooling,” said Hollon. He said that overall the approach is going to be: “Not only do we not do bad, stupid things now, but how do we heal things that are in tough shape?”

Much of this healing will occur through planned green infrastructure. At its core, green infrastructure is the city’s concentrated effort to add life – clean air and water, beauty and temperature control – to Austin. Mars said that trees, as the “hardest-working citizens in this community,” are a big component of this and that the city is basing many of its recommendations for tree retention policies on an urban forest study done by Texas A&M University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to underscore the necessity of this push.

“The value that trees provide our community is millions of dollars,” Mars said. “If we don’t have urban trees and urban forests then there have to be engineered solutions instead – and by the way, those engineered solutions cost a lot of money.” There is an intent statement in the code that reflects the profound impact of this study on the proposed regulations.

He continued that although it is the intent to preserve as many trees as possible, the choice to retain or replace will continue on a case-by-case basis, as it does today. With every site plan review, he said, the same question will remain: “When is it worth encouraging people to preserve trees and when is it not worth it to do so?”

Hollon presented the intention behind the code slightly differently. He said that by integrating these environmental expectations into development from the get-go, it is “taking it to the next level.” Taking this next step, however, comes with growing pains. Not only are Austin residents wary of the financial restrictions and red tape associated with simultaneously implementing so many regulations into the code, but “the development community is concerned with some of the proposals we’ve got,” he said.

Hollon noted that making development greener may help make the inevitable densification of Austin more palatable. Although Austin’s development is often portrayed in a negative light, environmentally there are benefits to encouraging dense urbanization, he said. “Cities as a whole have a lot of problems, but if you have a dense city, you have a lighter footprint.”

He did concede that much of the pushback against the proposals is coming from outside of the environmental sphere. “I think most people are focused on the zoning and density part and they’re not even aware that CodeNEXT is doing good work on environment and drainage,” he said.

Mars explained that having the public avoid parsing out every little change in environmental regulation may be a blessing in disguise. “We have to focus on the forest, not the trees,” he said of the overall changes that CodeNEXT is funneling in.

Although, he did note that if you ignore the trees completely no one would want to live in Austin anymore, which, according to him, is “fine; we won’t have an affordability problem anymore.”

For Mars and Hollon, the implementation of CodeNEXT is not a buffet lunch where you can pick the parts you like and forgo the rest. Instead, it is a question of finding the single best solution to accommodate the 750,000 new people that will fill the city limits within the next several decades and the inherent conflict between new development and environment. “It’s imperative to maintain our city’s green places” to do that, said Hollon.

Photo by Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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