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Demolition permitting revision to get going in 2020

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Development Services Department is behind schedule in its effort to revise the city’s demolition permitting process.

The department issued a report with nine recommendations for a new process in October 2018. At the time, the department expected to bring its proposed amendments to City Council for implementation in spring 2019, but that timeline has fallen through.

A Nov. 19 memorandum posted by Denise Lucas, director of Development Services, states that the project teams tasked with advancing the recommendations “discovered complexities … that increased the scope of work required” to achieve the desired outcomes.

As a result, only one of the recommendations has been implemented so far. In November 2018, the department took over commercial demolition permitting from the Historic Preservation Office, meeting the goal of consolidating residential and commercial demolition permitting into one place.

That leaves eight incomplete tasks to address over the coming year and beyond. The combined project will result in a new permitting process that will require new city ordinances as well as changes to the rules outlined in the city’s Building Criteria Manual. That work is now scheduled to be mostly complete by next fall.

Starting in January, the department will bring Council proposals for three major elements of the revised process related to safety precautions and notifying stakeholders prior to a demolition.

Council’s resolution on the new process from December 2017 noted the threat posed by hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos that can be uncovered during demolition projects. The resolution requested possible amendments that would compensate for the fact that neither state nor federal regulations require asbestos or lead testing for demolitions or alterations of small-scale residential buildings such as single-family homes or duplexes.

The department considered the need for the city to adopt its own testing regulations, but said the variety of stakeholder opinions on the matter undermined the value of such a program. In the place of a testing policy, Council will instead consider a “compliance affidavit” in January that will require demolition contractors to confirm their compliance with any existing city, state or federal regulations for removing and disposing of hazardous materials.

Under the affidavit requirement, contractors would need to comply with any additional city testing policies that Council may choose to implement in the future.

Proper notification of demolitions has been another major concern under the current process. During an extended stakeholder engagement effort from March to September 2018, Development Services heard numerous complaints indicating that the notification process gives too short a notice and doesn’t adequately engage neighborhood residents.

Council will consider two process changes in January to address notification. The first amendment establishes a minimum time period for individuals or neighborhood organization representatives to register as interested parties for any demolition application, extending the application review and permit issuance period to a minimum of five business days. The second requires giving notice to adjacent properties at least five business days prior to a demolition.

A subsequent proposal in April will aim to improve public access to geographic information system (GIS) data as it relates to demolition permits and to create a subscription tool allowing interested parties to sign up for regular notifications when demolition applications are submitted and permits are issued.

By January 2021, the department expects to have completed major improvements to the quality and amount of information available on its website. Details on the permitting process, application requirements, inspection requirements, recycling and salvage of materials, and safety regulations will all be added to the site.

In June, Council will consider adopting automatic final inspections to be conducted within five days of the expiration of a demolition permit. These inspections will verify that the demolition took place, that all utilities have been properly dealt with, that the site has been revegetated if required, and that no hazards were left behind.

The current permitting process sometimes gives property owners the responsibility to contact city departments to make sure utilities are ready for a demolition. The new process will place that responsibility in the city’s hands in order to protect city property like water and gas lines.

Development Services will present its proposal for a pre-demolition meeting requirement in June that will achieve part of that transition. The pre-demolition meetings will take place just before a demolition and will verify that accommodations have been made for any environmental or tree protections, utilities have been prepared and notification has been issued to adjacent properties.

In October, the department will present its new coordinated review process to complete that work. The new review will include city departments such as Austin Resource Recovery, Austin Energy, Austin Water, and the Historic Preservation Office, as well as city arborist and floodplain reviews.

Photo by smallcurio made available through a Creative Commons license.

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