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Planning, Development Services still operating

Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Despite the unprecedented challenge presented by the COVID-19 outbreak, the city is attempting to conduct its land use and development services business to keep those processes moving forward.

Jerry Rusthoven, leader of the Planning and Zoning Department, told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that all members of his 55-person staff are doing their jobs from home. They are able to do that in part, he noted, because some staffers from the Development Services Department are performing intake duties for them. When an applicant brings in a document intended for the Planning Department, the DSD employee at the intake desk scans it and emails it to the appropriate person at Planning and Zoning.

If someone comes to try to conduct planning and zoning business in person, Rusthoven said, a sign at the office explains what number to call to reach a receptionist, who will forward the message to the appropriate staff member.

Denise Lucas, director of the Development Services Department, posted a memo to all stakeholders Tuesday. “Our Development Services Department team knows that many of you are working hard to keep important projects moving forward under challenging conditions,” she wrote.

She pointed out that many of the department’s processes are available online and do not require a visit to the office. However, she asked those who need to go in person to One Texas Center to follow recommended social distancing, with no more than 10 people in the waiting area 6 feet apart from one another. When a reporter stopped by the area, only two people were waiting. “We appreciate your patience as wait times might be longer than usual,” she wrote, and recommended that people check in online prior to arrival.

DSD spokeswoman Robbie Searcy told the Monitor via email that the department has 432 employees, with 55 of those employees continuing to work at One Texas Center, “including the department director and members of the executive team.” She said those employees are in their offices “to handle walk-in services that are vital to helping the construction community continue to work during this critical time.”

Searcy added that walk-in customer traffic has been lighter than normal while they are seeing an increase in electronic submissions.

Land planner Ron Thrower of Thrower Design told us that he and his staff have not experienced any particular problems because of the new procedures. One member of his staff has had some limited face-to-face contact with DSD since the COVID-19 virus has changed so many things. He said he thought the online process was working well.

Lucas’ memo includes numerous links to email addresses for things like site plan exemption requests, corrections and land use review.

Austin Energy and Austin Water walk-ins have been suspended until April 1, but applications for water and wastewater service and electric service can be submitted by email.

According to the memo, the DSD is looking for a new digital solution for commercial plan review, but customers who have previously used ProjectDox may continue to do so.

In addition, “All scheduled inspections will continue until further notice. Inspectors are using precautionary measures, such as social distancing and enhanced sanitation practices. Tree inspectors will continue to respond to regulatory calls,” but Tree Smart training events have been canceled.

Rusthoven said prior to COVID-19, several members of his staff were working on getting ready to move from One Texas Center to the new Airport Boulevard location. The move was supposed to take place in June or July, but he wasn’t sure if that timetable might change. Some employees are working on that from home, he said, by scanning in paper documents that the department does not want to carry to the new offices.

Rusthoven said some members of his staff are devoting time to reading the 1,000-page new Land Development Code. The date for the adoption of the code is now an unknown, of course, and Judge Jan Soifer’s ruling late Wednesday puts the adoption in even more jeopardy.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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