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Green infrastructure pushed as remedy to stormwater pollution threats

Friday, October 29, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

An Austin-based environmental group is pushing City Council to approve a plan to protect area waterways from pollution through changes in building requirements that would promote stormwater retention.

On Wednesday, Environment Texas delivered petitions with roughly 1,000 signatures to Council offices. The petitions call for a move to include nature-based infrastructure such as rain gardens, green rooftops, porous pavement and varieties of plant life in development projects to offset the impact of pavement that directs rainwater and pollutants, including fecal bacteria, into lakes and streams.

The changes have been mixed in with other proposals under consideration for more than four years as the city has gone through multiple attempts to revise its Land Development Code, which is currently being challenged in court.

Environment Texas leaders collected signatures door to door over the summer to show support for three high-impact and popular concepts: requiring tree islands in parking lots; adopting the Functional Green program that was crafted last year as part of the land use code rewrite; and enacting a loophole for redevelopment of existing commercial projects that would exempt them from the new requirements if they didn’t increase impervious cover.

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said Council members and their staff have been supportive of the proposal, which he hopes will be approved by the end of the year.

“For more than four years now we have been calling on City Council to adopt requirements for nature-based infrastructure as a way to reduce water pollution, and we’ve been spelling out specific policies including the Functional Green program,” he said. “Most of these items have been flying under the radar and so some of the offices we talked to weren’t even familiar with them because they weren’t getting as much attention as the more controversial pieces of the code.”

Metzger said Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar are working to incorporate the green infrastructure requirements into a larger policy package that would be focused on increasing housing stock along key transit corridors.

He said the changes aren’t expected to have a negative economic impact on new building projects that already use landscaping features for cosmetic appeal.

“These commercial properties are already doing landscaping as a basic thing to make a building look nice. Really it’s a matter of changing the landscaping you’re doing to allow it to better capture stormwater,” he said. “In speaking to some in the development community there’s some concern about requiring changes to their practices, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to have to pay any more. They’re just going to have to change the way that they’re doing landscaping.”

Environment Texas held a webinar Wednesday to discuss the push for green infrastructure as a larger development priority, with attendees pointing to successes in other cities and how Austin could benefit from its adoption.

Lisa Arceneaux, an environmental consultant specializing in stormwater issues, emphasized that developers and design engineers will need “clear design standards … or just the knowledge to let them use best engineering practices so the design of a project doesn’t become overly expensive and there’s no trouble figuring it all out.”

Mikel Wilkins, director of sustainability at TBG Partners, said resistance to green infrastructure often gets centered on the responsibility of maintenance once a project is completed and sold off.

“The pushback I’ve heard, for probably 15 years at least, is how are we going to afford maintaining this nature-based infrastructure, and when we’re talking about a short-term return on investment from a developer they’re not looking 25 years out … it’s two years out, tops.”

He said much of the green infrastructure will be maintained by an HOA or the city, so making it functional is critical “so it’s providing educational opportunities, aesthetics and heat island mitigation,” he said. “Communicating the benefits and making sure it’s carefully planned is paramount.”

Photo by Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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