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City proposes new demolition rules

Friday, January 11, 2019 by Jack Craver

In response to an audit last year that identified a number of problems in the city’s demolition permitting process, the Development Services Department has recommended a number of changes aimed at streamlining the process and ensuring safety.

The recommendations were included in a report published by the department in October. The report followed extensive engagement with stakeholder groups, including builders and neighborhood associations.

One of the recommendations has already been implemented: DSD has taken over permitting for all demolitions. In the past, DSD was only responsible for residential demolitions, while the Historic Preservation Office was –  curiously – in charge of processing permits for commercial demolitions, even if the property in question wasn’t historic. “This reduces the amount of time HPO can spend administering the city’s historic preservation program,” the audit explained at the time. “Staff in both departments were unsure why HPO accepts and processes all commercial demolition permits.”

Many of the other recommended changes will require City Council to approve amendments to the city code. Staff will present proposed code amendments to Council at some point in the coming year.

A number of DSD’s proposed changes are intended to ensure that utilities and nearby residents are notified of upcoming demolitions. The audit found that Austin Energy and Austin Water were often unaware of demolitions that could pose risks to water lines, gas lines and other sensitive equipment.

In order to better coordinate between the staff of different city departments, DSD has proposed “pre-demolition meetings” at the site to “verify environmental and tree protections are in place, all utilities have been capped or appropriately modified for use during demolition, and required notification has been provided to adjacent properties.”

One major safety concern highlighted in the audit related to the demolition of buildings containing asbestos or lead paint. State law requires the owners of commercial properties or multifamily properties with more than five units to test for the presence of asbestos before demolition. State law also requires that the city verify the test was conducted by a qualified person and that if asbestos is found on the property, the city must make sure that the contractor has put appropriate mitigation measures in place.

However, the audit revealed that the city was not consistently verifying that the required asbestos tests were being done at all. Sylvia Arzola, a spokesperson for DSD, said that at this time, the city simply does not have the staff resources necessary to “ensure compliance with the mitigation plan.”

While state law does not require asbestos testing for small residential structures (single-family homes, duplexes or triplexes), the city could put in place its own requirement. However, in a letter to the city, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin said such a measure was not necessary.

“We believe that the state’s regulations regarding asbestos are sufficient to protect Austin families,” said the association in a memo submitted as part of DSD’s stakeholder engagement process. “Although the dangers of asbestos are well documented, there is little evidence that families in Austin are at risk from exposure. Therefore, we would caution the city against expanding its authority beyond what is currently required by state law.”

DSD agreed with the group and is not recommending requiring asbestos tests for residential properties. Council, however, could put in place such a requirement if it chooses.

Photo by Sean Michael Ragan made available through a Creative Commons license.

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