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flood plain map
Photo by city of Austin

City considers changes to floodplain redevelopment

Thursday, July 7, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Owners of businesses in the city’s floodplain will soon be able to make changes to their buildings or rebuild entirely so flash floods pose less of a threat – to structures as well as employees and customers. 

The tweak to city code, currently working its way through boards and commissions, will allow commercial buildings within the floodplain to redevelop without special permission from City Council. On Tuesday, the Zoning and Platting Commission was the latest body to discuss the code change.

“What this exception does is it gives some options for those existing buildings that we know are too low, that we know don’t have safe access, and hopefully it improves the situation,” Jameson Courtney with the Watershed Protection Department told ZAP in a presentation. “It’s not ideal, but it’s a solution.”

The exception requires several criteria to be met. The new building must replace or modify an existing building, and it can’t be bigger than the original; the first floor must be two feet above the 100-year floodplain; additional parking cannot be within the floodplain; and the redevelopment must not worsen flooding elsewhere. The exception does not apply to some uses, including schools and factories. Many older buildings are in the floodplain in the first place due to lax flood regulations in the past. 

Courtney emphasized that the change does not override zoning regulations such as height or impervious cover limits. “This isn’t an exception that’s gonna let somebody tear down a 1-story restaurant and build a 10-story office building,” he said.

After questions from commissioners, ZAP voted to postpone a recommendation until July 26 to allow for more discussion. The Planning Commission will also discuss the change on July 12.

The exception follows broad updates to floodplain regulations in 2019 spurred by Atlas 14, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that predicts worsening flash floods in Central Texas. 

Among these updates was a residential exception – a rule allowing homes in the floodplain to rebuild if they meet certain conditions. Instead of extending this exception to commercial structures, Council directed staffers to work with stakeholders and various city departments to draft a separate ordinance for commercial buildings. With this work nearly complete, the code change is scheduled for adoption by City Council on Sept. 1.

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