Tuesday, August 20, 2019 by Jo Clifton

‘Shot clock’ reviews hit Council’s agenda

Under a looming deadline from the state, Council is set on Thursday to pass changes to the way the city reviews and approves subdivision development applications, despite the possibility of “unfortunate and unintended consequences,” in the words of Council Member Alison Alter.

House Bill 3167, known as the “shot clock” bill, requires cities and counties to act within 30 calendar days on subdivision development applications and 15 days for subsequent updates to those applications, according to a memo from Andy Linseisen, assistant director of the Development Services Department. That law takes effect Sept. 1.

Linseisen said both City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court must approve the changes before the new rules go into effect. He said he expects commissioners at their Aug. 27 meeting to approve exactly the same language that Council adopts.

If the city or county fails to complete the approval process within the state’s timeline, the plat or plan will be considered approved. Austin already has a standard that requires department reviewers to get things done more quickly than that, but they do not always meet the goal, a frequent cause for complaint from the development community.

In order to meet the demands of the legislation, Linseisen reported that his department would allow subdivision cases to go to either the Planning Commission or the Zoning and Platting Commission, regardless of whether the area was covered by a neighborhood plan.

Planner Jim Duncan, vice chair of ZAP, said, “I think the state is putting undue pressure on local government … It could push some people to denial (at the commission level) just because of the time limit.”

On the other hand, postponements should become extremely rare. The revised ordinance states that the land use commission conducting a public hearing about a preliminary plan or plat “may not postpone or continue the hearing, unless it can do so without exceeding the time limitations,” which means 30 days.

As the Austin Monitor reported in June: “On April 2, Geoffrey Tahuahua of the Real Estate Council of Austin told the House Committee on Land & Resource Management that his organization had worked with the Development Services Department. One of the consistent areas of improvement developers were seeking related to the time lapse between submittal of applications and response from staff, he said.”

“‘While we are extremely happy with the implementation of many of these process improvements, and the direction of Development Services here in Austin, there is still a lot of work ahead. Whether it’s a building permit, plat approval or site plan, every day that passes’ is not only a loss in productivity, he said, but also a cost increase that ultimately gets passed down to the consumer.”

HB 3167 also prohibits city or county staff “from making new comments not provided in the original review,” Linseisen noted in a memo to the mayor and Council. The practical effect of that could be unintended consequences, Alter noted.

As chair of the Council Audit & Finance Committee, Alter is well aware of development review problems. “We just reviewed an audit last week that highlighted the difficulties we face moving projects through the permitting process as it is. Now state law requires a subset to go even faster, tasking our systems with more than they can handle.”

Alter concluded, “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our code protects our community against health and safety risks.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she was hopeful that the efficiency improvements and streamlining instituted by the city over the last couple of years will mean continued improvement. However, she added, “I fear that we will have to add reviewers to the department to comply with this unfunded state mandate. So it is of concern that we have this legislative requirement that will likely force us to hire additional staff to meet deadline demands.”

At last week’s meeting of the committee, Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales said the department’s new hires will provide needed help to meet the state’s requirements, but that weekend and overtime shifts will be necessary.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who, like Alter and Tovo, sits on the Audit & Finance Committee, which continues to hear audit reports showing strengths and weaknesses of the city’s development review process, responded via email, “I am confident that the state legislature knows next to nothing about the complexities inherent in municipal development review and approval processes, and still they brashly imposed arbitrary approval deadlines …

“And when you add in the new restrictions of the 3.5 percent revenue cap, then we have a real crisis ahead – not just in Austin, but in all parts of the state where population is growing and the economy is booming. When the cap makes it impossible to hire more staff, and the arbitrary shot clock forces approvals within a 30-day timeframe, will the state legislature accept responsibility for the liabilities and lawsuits that are sure to come as a result of forced deadlines and cursory reviews?”

Council Member Paige Ellis told the Monitor via email, “While there is a need to streamline the city’s land development practices, the legislature’s arbitrary timeline doesn’t ensure success. We should be improving our processes to best align the demand for places to live, work and play in a growing city with our community’s values.”

Under the proposed new regulations, the life of an application will start “when the application is deemed complete and formally submitted for review. The 30-day mandated review timelines start when an application has been accepted for formal submittal,” according to Linseisen’s memo.

The Development Services Department plans to hold a “stakeholder engagement event” with Travis County on Aug. 29 on the proposed implementation plan.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

Texas State Legislature

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