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Photo by ATXN. Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley addresses the Parks and Recreation Board.

Parks board unhappy with PARD’s handling of parkland fee dustup

Friday, October 29, 2021 by Amy Smith

In mid-September, the Parks and Recreation Board heard a briefing from staffers that included a video extolling the benefits of the city’s Parkland Dedication Ordinance, which requires developers to dedicate on-site parkland or pay a fee-in-lieu toward the acquisition and development of parks.

But that rosy picture of the ordinance was overshadowed at Tuesday’s meeting by board members’ frustration with PARD leadership’s role in the potential undoing of the parkland fee structure because builders say they were unaware of the hike.

Board members were particularly unhappy that PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley took the park fee issue directly to City Council, first with an Oct. 8 memo, then with an item on Council’s Oct. 21 agenda, recommending delaying the new fees and reopening a stakeholder process. (The item was postponed indefinitely.)

“Last month we heard a presentation on parkland dedication so we could learn about the value of the ordinance and how crucial it is to the parks department,” Chair Dawn Lewis said. “And then this month we got an (internal) email with a copy of a newspaper article that mentioned that staff had decided to ask to delay the fees and to revisit the funding process because there was concern about developers being unhappy.”

Board Member Rich DePalma, who participated in the 2015-16 stakeholder process with developers’ representatives and parks advocates, expressed skepticism that the new fee increase took the development community by surprise. He said anyone who does business with the city is always checking the fee structures.

“You’re looking to see how your business is going to be impacted,” DePalma said. “That’s just good business. And I frankly don’t know anybody in the … industry who does public sector work that doesn’t check this out.”

DePalma addressed McNeeley: “Why did the parks board not learn about the memo until it was published in the Austin Monitor on Oct. 12?”

McNeeley explained that representatives of the Real Estate Council of Austin had invited her to a meeting on Sept. 22. (The meeting included McNeeley, parks staffers, RECA reps, and representatives from the city manager’s office.)

The director recounted that RECA members told her they were concerned they had not been contacted about the fees increasing and that the increase would affect affordable housing. McNeeley said she acknowledged to them that, because they’re stakeholders, the department should have reached out to alert them of the fee increase.

McNeeley said she committed to meet with RECA members on a quarterly basis to keep the communication lines open.

“Who else will you be inviting to your quarterly meetings with RECA about parkland dedication?” Board Member Sarah Faust asked. McNeeley responded that the meetings would cover a range of topics, not just parkland dedication.

Faust advised McNeeley that she should also include the Austin Parks Foundation or a parks board representative in the meetings “so it’s not just RECA getting a quarterly meeting to plead their case with you, without anybody else giving context.”

McNeeley agreed that parks representatives would be helpful to include in the meetings.

Faust, an attorney, said she too was skeptical that developers were caught flat-footed over the parkland fee increase. “My experience with land use law and environmental law in Austin is that we have a very sophisticated development community and they’re not getting caught by surprise by fees,” she said. “They’re looking long-term at a lot of different projects, and that includes our affordable housing builders.”

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