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As affordability concerns linger, Planning Commission postpones enviro code changes

Monday, October 3, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission postponed a vote Tuesday on a complex package of environmental and water quality code amendments. Commissioners say much work remains to understand the full impact of the changes, especially as they relate to housing affordability. 

While many code changes are proposed, the biggest include requiring enhanced “functional green” landscaping in most new developments, as well as upgraded stormwater infrastructure like rain gardens or biofiltration ponds instead of concrete detention ponds. 

The code changes were originally part of the failed Land Development Code rewrite. City Council put the changes back on the table in June via a resolution sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo. Additional amendments are slated for a second phase, which will take at least six to eight more months. 

The commission was set to vote on the changes Tuesday, but instead voted 8-0-1 to postpone further discussion in large part because a working group was unable to meet. Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstained, and several members were absent. The item had already been postponed by a month.

The commission now plans to discuss and vote on the changes on Oct. 11 – two days before the item is scheduled at Council. 

While commissioners seem to agree that the code changes would have a positive impact on the environment, concerns remain that the rules could make housing more expensive to build. 

In response, city staffers shared an affordability impact statement. According to the document, “the proposed code amendments may increase construction and maintenance costs but have environmental benefits. Due to these tradeoffs, the affordability impact is considered undetermined.” 

Liz Johnston of the Watershed Protection Department said that the functional green landscaping requirements and the green stormwater infrastructure items “rose to the top as potential impacts.” Functional green is projected to cost developers anywhere from $89,000 an acre to $238,000 an acre, though it is unclear how much of that would be additional costs. 

The document notes that the cost impacts might be different for market-rate versus affordable housing projects. In market-rate projects, costs are likely to be passed on to homebuyers or renters. In affordable projects, costs might instead lead to a reduction in the number of affordable units or reduced amenities.

Commissioner Awais Azhar had hoped to move some of the more controversial items, among these functional green and exceptions for “missing middle” housing, to phase two. “The main idea here is not to hold up everything because there’s some pieces that are contentious,” Azhar said. 

But not everyone was on board. “I just feel like we could take the opportunity now to work through this rather than basically just punt this another year,” Commissioner Grayson Cox said.

Azhar’s motion failed 6-2-1, with Cox and Commissioner Yvette Flores against and Llanes Pulido abstaining.

The Planning Commission’s postponement comes on the heels of recommendations by the environmental and zoning and platting commissions. The Environmental Commission last week recommended Council approve the changes, and noted considerations related to equity. Two weeks ago, ZAP recommended only code changes that do not have a negative impact on affordability. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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