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Environmental Commission recommends watershed code changes despite equity concerns

Monday, September 26, 2022 by Nina Hernandez

At its regular meeting last week, the Environmental Commission voted to recommend a group of watershed-related Land Development Code changes to City Council, along with a set of recommendations on public engagement and equity.

The amendments to Title 25 of city code make much-needed updates to regulations around stormwater drainage, wastewater infrastructure, landscape requirements and wetland protections. These sections of city code haven’t been substantially updated in decades.

But approval comes with a list of recommendations the commission would like Council to consider. Among other items, the commission recommends amending the draft language to require small-scale “missing middle” projects to send out zoning and building notifications to adjacent neighbors within 500 feet; requiring long-term maintenance plans for landscaping and functional green infrastructure; and ordering affected neighborhood drainage be brought up to code to improve capacity and reduce environmental impact.

Commissioner Ana Aguirre said although she appreciates how the revisions advance environmental protection, her major concern is a lack of community engagement. “I know some people consider public commissions community engagement,” she said. “That’s not enough.”

Aguirre also raised concerns about changes that would exempt missing middle development projects from environmental reviews that would require notification to adjacent property owners.

She continued: “We have areas in East and Central Austin that do not have the environmental protections as properties located within the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. We’re going to create an even more vulnerable part of East Austin.”

Liz Johnston of the Watershed Protection Department explained that the missing middle direction came from Council Member Chito Vela. The intent is to stop the city from disincentivizing missing middle projects over single-family for the same environmental impact.

“With the idea that single-family homes can bypass environmental review and just go through a building permit because whenever they were platted, they met whatever rules we had at the time,” Johnston said. “Once you get to three units, it goes through the entire site plan process. The argument has been that that disincentivizes the projects to do missing middle. We’re trying to level the playing field to the extent that we can.”

Johnston clarified that environmental regulations (including drainage requirements, erosion review and tree review) still apply to those missing middle projects. And the changes do not affect zoning at all.

In response to public engagement questions from Aguirre and other commissioners, Johnston said Council asked them to do public engagement on phase two, but did not allow the time for extended public engagement on the first set of proposals. That’s because the phase one set of changes have been thoroughly vetted during multiple rounds of Land Development Code revision discussions.

The commission voted to recommend the changes, but included with its approval a list of recommendations, which includes requests for the Austin Equity Office to work with environmental staff to identify and address inequities “created by different rules for the Desired Development Zone and Critical Water Quality Zones such as Barton Springs.”

The changes to Title 25 are due to reach City Council at its Oct. 13 meeting instead of this week as previously discussed. Staff explained the delay is to allow time for finalizing the affordability impact statement, as well as to consider and incorporate Planning Commission and other boards’ recommendations into the final project.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to review the draft ordinance at its Tuesday meeting.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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