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County looks to amend development code to increase fire protections

Thursday, August 5, 2021 by Seth Smalley

On July 27, Travis County commissioners fielded discussion regarding the Stone Ridge Estates subdivision and the Flint Rock Circle subdivision. Both developments are located in far west Travis County, off of Highway 71 in Precinct 3. While the discussion was brought to the Commissioners Court by Anna Bowlin with Transportation and Natural Resources – who went on to recommend vacating the first development and approving the second – commissioners focused their discussion on the developments’ vulnerability to wildfires.

A vacation, which can be either total or partial, removes either all of the lots, public rights of way and plat restrictions – or only some of them.

“The purpose behind this request is to vacate the existing Stone Ridge Estates subdivision, to totally vacate it. That’s part A. Part B is to approve the Flint Rock subdivision, which involves nine residential lots on 10.134 acres and one drainage and critical environmental feature lot,” said Bowlin, who went on to recommend that commissioners approve the developer’s request.

Commissioner Brigid Shea brought up the possibility that the Flint Rock Circle development – which shares a waterline with the nearby Preservation Ranch development – has insufficient waterlines for use by the Fire Department.

“This development and the Preservation Ranch development are both served by the West Travis County Public Utility Authority Waterline,” Shea said. “In the case of Preservation Ranch, the engineer for the applicant determined that there was not sufficient water in that line for firefighting.”

Shea relayed complaints from constituents about the waterline, drawing attention to the water being inadequate for human consumption as well as having an insufficient water flow for firefighters. Shea called on Bowlin to explain the discrepancy between constituent concerns and what the official reports about the subdivision development suggested. “This area is served by that same line and it says that the record engineer has indicated that adequate fire flow will be available to the proposed subdivision. Can you explain how that’s possible? Same waterline, two different findings; do we have insight into that?”

“What I can tell you is, looking at the letter that their project engineer provided us, they did a test and it showed that there were 750 GPMs (gallons per minute) available,” Bowlin said. (The standard pump requirements for area firefighters is 750 GPM.)

Bowlin also noted the report indicated the presence of a fire hydrant 500 feet to the east of the development. “These hydrants will serve the existing residents that are located adjacent across the street, and should this flow be inadequate, the requirement will be met by the installation of an NFPA 13D fire sprinkler system,” Bowlin said, reading from the report.

The engineer of record for the project also noted in the report that “this means of fire flow has been implemented before in other projects that fall into various local fire jurisdictions. The requirement per the fire marshal can be met.”

Shea called for the fire marshal to verify that the water flow readings for the development would be adequate.

“Because we did get a follow-up email from the fire marshal indicating that there has been at least one instance where there was improper evaluation of this data,” Shea explained.

“I just think where we can provide greater protection from wildfires, we should. I don’t think we’ll have a good answer if, after a wildfire, people ask us, why didn’t you require greater protections on these new developments?”

Commissioners deliberated on whether to approve the development conditionally, or delay the vote to get a better idea of what kind of improvements they’d like to see moving ahead.

“These are nine single-family lots where every one of them should be concerned about fire based on where they’re choosing to build,” Commissioner Ann Howard said. “I don’t personally see a reason to stop this from moving forward, but I think it’s an opportunity for us to put a fork in the sand about working to be more intentional about what we require going forward.”

Commissioners eventually approved the motion and called for an amendment in the development code that would require developers to comply with Firewise protection measures, a national standard that helps communities prepare for wildfires.

“Can we bring back amendments to the development code that would provide this kind of protection? I think it’s better if we require it rather than recommend it,” Shea said, asking about specific direction the court could provide to TNR “to include a requirement for Firewise.”

Bowlin affirmed that TNR would “work with attorneys to come up with a code amendment that requires that.”

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