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Council puts off making environmental code changes

Friday, October 14, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council opted Thursday to postpone a decision on changes to the city’s environmental regulations related to drainage, landscape and site plan requirements. Staff and environmentalists argue the changes are important updates to regulations related to stormwater drainage, wastewater infrastructure, landscape requirements and wetland protections.

The Planning Commission had already recommended postponing certain sections of the new rules and staff members were asking Council to approve the remaining regulations on Thursday, with a plan to come back to Council with other changes later.

The real disagreement was about whether to approve any new regulations or to postpone all of the regulations staff had proposed. Council members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool wanted to move forward with the rules blessed by the planning and environmental commissions. The three were the only Council members voting to move forward with a subset of the regulations immediately. Pool warned her colleagues against postponing the new rules, saying climate change is happening now.

Council members Mackenzie Kelly, Pio Renteria and Chito Vela argued against taking any action, saying many community members were caught unaware by the new rules. Council Member Paige Ellis said she would support them on the question and Mayor Steve Adler also indicated he was not ready to move forward.

One of the changes being postponed relates to increasing the critical water quality zone below Longhorn Dam to 400 feet from the riverbank. Council members indicated they were not ready to approve such a change, especially in light of the fact that many property owners in the area were probably not aware of the proposed changes.

Pool asked staff whether the city had followed the appropriate procedures for notifying people about changes to the city code. Assistant City Attorney Chad Shaw said the only modification required for the regulations was notice about the Planning Commission hearing. These regulations do not require the notice required by changes to zoning regulations.

Several environmental groups sent representatives to ask Council to move forward with the improved regulations immediately. Maura Powers of the Travis Chapter of the National Audubon Society urged immediate adoption of the item. The local chapter manages the Baker Sanctuary, primarily to protect the golden-cheeked warbler, and Powers told Council that, during the past 30 years, Texas has experienced a great decline in the number of birds migrating and living here. She said the proposed changes to environmental regulations would be an important improvement to the system.

On the other side, Sam Pfeiffer, who described himself as a civil engineer, told Council he was concerned about what he considered a “rush” to change environmental regulations. He said that was especially true of proposed functional green changes, which would require properties with 80 percent or more impervious cover to comply with infrastructure-based requirements like green roofs, landscaping and controlling stormwater runoff. Those changes were first proposed five years ago, but fell by the wayside when staff started concentrating on changes to zoning regulations.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter proposed a resolution of the argument that includes a definite date – Oct. 27 – to bring back the uncontroversial parts of the proposed ordinance changes. The rest of the changes will come back at an unspecified date.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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