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Planning Commission recommends floodplain redevelopment changes

Thursday, July 21, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Despite lingering concerns, the Planning Commission on July 12 recommended a tweak to floodplain regulations that would allow existing businesses within the floodplain to rebuild without special permission from City Council. 

The rule change would give city staffers the power to approve redevelopment of existing commercial buildings in the floodplain if they are rebuilt to certain standards. New buildings can’t be any bigger than the original, and they must be at least 2 feet above the 100-year floodplain, among other stipulations. 

The idea is to give property owners flexibility, and hopefully create structures that are at less risk of flooding. Though construction in the floodplain is not allowed nowadays, many older businesses and homes lie in the floodplain due to fewer flood regulations in the past. 

Jameson Courtney with the Watershed Protection Department explained the rule with the hypothetical example of Shoal Creek Saloon, which sits in the floodplain. “If they were to suffer a fire, and that building were substantially damaged and needed to be replaced, under current code, there would not be a single proposed improvement the owner could do that staff would be able to approve,” Courtney said. 

Their only option, Courtney continued, would be ask permission from Council – “a several-month process of getting on the agenda, investing the money in plans and applications, without any certainty that that would ultimately be approved.”

Because the exception is so specific, only a small number of commercial properties could actually take advantage of it. “We ran that number and I think we came up with something under 200 (properties),” Courtney said. He added that likely only a handful of properties each year would request the variance. 

Courtney, addressing concerns from the public and commissioners, emphasized that the rule exceeds all state and federal flood regulation standards and does not allow properties to build anything too different than what is already on the site.

Even with Courtney’s assurances, Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler worried about “the potential of unintended consequences of enticing development and business in these areas where it potentially doesn’t belong.” 

She also worried about oversight, with one (unelected) person – the director of the Watershed Protection Department – having the final say. “I’d rather let these come before Council and go through a process,” Mushtaler said. 

Commissioner Awais Azhar suggested staffers report back in a year with data on how the exception is being used. “I think just having that information in the future will help dispel some of the concerns that folks have,” he said.

Though Commissioner Claire Hempel was supportive, she nonetheless emphasized that the ideal situation would be nothing in the floodplain at all. “We’re just continuing to aggregate the flooding issues down the stream … instead of removing those structures and letting the flooding do what it’s going to do.”

The commission voted 8-2, with Mushtaler and Commissioner Grayson Cox against, to recommend Council approve the change. Two weeks prior, the Zoning and Platting Commission postponed their recommendation due to outstanding concerns. 

The minor tweak follows a comprehensive update to floodplain regulations in 2019 prompted by Atlas 14, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that predicts worsening floods in Austin. 

A residential redevelopment exception was part of this 2019 update. At the same time, Council told staff to craft a commercial exception. This was prompted in part by advocacy from the Real Estate Council of Austin. 

The code change is scheduled for a Council vote on Sept. 1.

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