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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Monday, July 23, 2018 by Jo Clifton
CodeNEXT testing: What to look for
Depending on who you ask, the testing of CodeNEXT, the rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code, is either an important exercise in moving the city toward more efficient construction or just an obscure game being played at City Hall.
Members of the development community, represented by the Real Estate Council of Austin, and members of other interest groups such as the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Evolve and Clean Water Action, will be watching the process to make sure that the game is played fairly. Also, members of the public will be able to watch the process in person or on a city channel.
Either way, leaders of the Planning and Zoning Department had hoped to start the first two days of testing this morning. However, because it’s midsummer, many of the design professionals who might have participated are unavailable. So the first two days of the testing will be July 30 and 31, according to the department’s assistant director, Jerry Rusthoven.
Rusthoven had not found an available time for the second round of testing as of Friday. One of the problems is that the meetings will take place in the Boards and Commissions Room of City Hall, a room that City Council will be using frequently during August.
Geoffrey Tahuahua, vice president of policy and governmental affairs at RECA, told the Austin Monitor that his organization’s “consistent message has been the need to have a predictable code where someone can go in and understand how to get from point A to point B” in developing property.
Over the last three drafts of CodeNEXT, he said, “our biggest concern is you don’t know how to get from A to B, and it looks like each individual department has written its own individual section without consideration for the other sections – so you end up with conflicts between the sections and sometimes within the sections.”
Tahuahua said it’s important to resolve the conflicts within different sections of the code in order to make it something predictable that people can work with. “The hope is if we can highlight what some of those conflicts are and demonstrate the problems” within the regulations, the end result would be a list of the conflicts. That list would then be “provided to Council for discussion about to how to actually address those conflicts,” he said.
On the other hand, environmentalists will want to make sure that CodeNEXT keeps a number of hard-won rules protecting watersheds, trees and other natural features and helping to prevent flooding.
David Foster, Texas Director of the Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund, and Austin’s Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak both told the Monitor there are numerous improvements to environmental regulations in the current draft of CodeNEXT.
Foster said via email that his organization is especially pleased that Draft 3 “preserves protections for Austin’s trees, particularly heritage trees, carries forward the Save Our Springs mandate to protect the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer and also preserves the 2013 Watershed Protection Ordinance.”
That ordinance, Foster said, protects headwater streams in East Austin and pulls development farther back from the center of creeks to reduce risk of flooding and erosion.
The new draft also “closes the loophole that allows redevelopment to avoid installing stormwater controls if they do not increase impervious cover. This is a major improvement over current regulations,” Foster observed.
Lesniak said that from the standpoint of protecting the city’s watersheds there are two big categories of changes in CodeNEXT. The first relates to requirements for green stormwater infrastructure.
“In the past, things like rain gardens and rainwater harvesting have been options for treatment. … What we’re proposing now is to make that (infrastructure) mandatory for commercial and multifamily development that has 80 percent impervious cover or less,” he said.
Rain gardens would not be required on sites that have very high impervious cover already, Lesniak said, because “this type of water quality treatment tends to take up more space.”
Lesniak said city staff had already done some testing and modeling just to see how challenging it would be to redevelop sites with more than 80 percent impervious cover using green stormwater infrastructure.
“But if you don’t do green stormwater infrastructure,” he said, “you have to do rainwater harvesting – at least enough to irrigate your landscape – and then you can do traditional water quality treatment on your property.”
He noted that the development community had expressed concerns about the stormwater requirements on particular sites that are steeply sloped or have protected trees or critical environmental features. “We have a provision in the proposed code for unique site conditions,” which would give the developer a certain amount of flexibility, he said.
“The other big change is in the drainage requirements,” Lesniak said. Under the current code, old developments are not required to address their share of flooding if they do not add impervious cover to the site. That particular provision, he said, “offloads the responsibility” for mitigating the flooding to the city government. “So, what we’re proposing is you have to do the drainage analysis as if it were on an undeveloped property.”
He pointed out that in some instances the developer could pay a fee in lieu of building certain infrastructure. However, he pointed out that it is reasonably easy to build a detention pond underground or under parking lots in order to save space.
These are just a few of the things that the CodeNEXT test participants will get to hash out when they get together.
Map courtesy of the city of Austin.
Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin Neighborhoods Council: The ANC is an organization of representatives of neighborhood associations from around the City of Austin. It's members largely favor neighborhood direction of development policy.
CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.
Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.
Real Estate Council of Austin: 501(c)6 for "more than 1,700 commercial real estate professionals representing the top leaders in the Central Texas business community." RECA is a donor to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent of the Austin Monitor.