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Planning Commission forwards heavily amended commercial parkland dedication ordinance

Tuesday, August 16, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission recommended approval of an ordinance last Tuesday that would require park space in commercial developments or otherwise charge developers a fee to fund parks nearby.

The purpose of the ordinance is to “account for the impact of job growth to our park system so that we’re keeping up proportionally with new parkland and new park amenities,” explained Tom Rowlinson, principal planner for the Parks and Recreation Department.

The rule, which would apply to retail, office, industrial and hotel developments, builds off of the city’s existing residential parkland dedication ordinance. City Council initiated the code change in April via a resolution by Council Member Alison Alter.

The commission passed 19 amendments to the ordinance during several hours of debate last week. While the commission was scheduled to vote on the item last month, its members decided to allow more deliberation. In the time since, a working group has met twice to hear from stakeholders and craft amendments.

At the heart of the rule are formulas that determine the amount of parkland a new development must set aside and the fee-in-lieu rate.

The parkland dedication formula estimates new demand for parks by taking into account the size of a development, the typical occupancy rates and hours of operation for various commercial uses, and the percentage of people who commute from outside Austin.

Fees are based on the cost of acquiring land for new parks. The city prioritizes buying new parkland with fee revenue, though the revenue can also be used for improvements to existing parks.

Many of the commission’s changes aimed to lessen the impact on new development. To minimize developers’ upfront costs, one amendment recommends collecting fees just before a building receives its certificate of occupancy instead of before construction. Parks staffers, however, said this could create a bureaucratic headache, forcing PARD to leave fee collection up to another department or hire new staff to administer the fee.

The commission also suggested that the fee should be lower in the urban core of the city, where there may be more parks than in suburban areas. Parks staffers pushed back, saying that the central city needs a higher concentration of parks because it is more densely populated, and that fees don’t go as far there because land is more expensive.

Another amendment suggests shielding the fee-in-lieu formula from annual swings in land prices by using the 10-year average cost of buying parkland. Because the formula currently accounts for annual changes in land values, the residential fee doubled last year and is set to double again.

After passing a series of amendments, the commission voted 8-2 to recommend approval with commissioners Jeffrey Thompson and Greg Anderson against. Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to adopt the ordinance along with the Planning Commission’s amendments.

“I feel like we need to do this now because we’re in a period of rapid growth, and our park score has been wavering,” Commissioner Grayson Cox said.

Thompson questioned whether the fee is necessary given that commercial development brings increased property and sales tax revenue for the city. “Maybe those (taxes) are helping us build our parks.”

Anderson voted against due to concern over increased development costs, but appreciated the commission’s work crafting the policy. “If I had to be the seventh vote, I would probably support this, just because I really feel that the good work that this body has done over the last couple of weeks has really improved this ordinance. And I really hope that Council assesses everything we’ve done here tonight,” Anderson said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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