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Planning Commission recommends enviro code updates with caveats

Thursday, October 13, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission on Tuesday unanimously recommended that City Council approve only certain elements of a package of code updates aimed at making new development more environmentally friendly, and suggested Council retool or delay adoption of other elements.

The complex code amendments have sparked considerable discussion at various boards and commissions in recent weeks, as affordability and equity concerns linger. With ample feedback in hand, Council is scheduled to vote today on adopting the changes into code. 

Some of the more substantial updates include requiring enhanced “functional green” landscaping elements and upgraded stormwater infrastructure like rain gardens or biofiltration ponds in most new developments. City staffers say the requirements will lead to additional environmental benefits, like decreased stormwater runoff, more habitat for pollinators and additional vegetation to counter the urban heat island effect. 

The changes were part of the failed Land Development Code rewrite. In June, Council passed a resolution sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo to bring the changes back under consideration.

The Planning Commission had postponed discussion on the code changes multiple times, citing concerns about potential impacts on housing affordability. City staffers determined that some elements, including functional green and green stormwater infrastructure, would likely add to the cost of building, though it remains unclear by how much. 

Given affordability concerns, the commission recommended delaying adoption of functional green requirements. In the meantime, the commission suggested staffers get further feedback from stakeholders and thoroughly assess the impact on the cost of building and developable space, especially in denser zoning categories.

“The hope is to bring this back as soon as possible, as soon as we achieve all this,” Commissioner Awais Azhar said. If Council agrees to postpone the functional green requirements, they could be rolled into a second phase of environmental code amendments, which staffers plan to bring before boards and commissions for consideration sometime next year. 

Among other minor amendmentsthe commission recommended immediate approval of green stormwater infrastructure requirements – provided that for affordable housing projects, the requirements are offset with additional development incentives.

Another important change within the package of code amendments – increasing the critical water quality zone along the Colorado River below the Longhorn Dam to 400 feet from the riverbank – received increased scrutiny on Tuesday. 

Commissioner Greg Anderson noted that under the proposed rule, many properties along East Cesar Chavez Street would fall into the CWQZ, limiting the ability of those properties to redevelop. Azhar pointed out many single-family properties along the river that would also be affected. “Those are folks who have been historically disenfranchised,” Azhar said. “I can’t just sit here today and rob them of wealth for them and their children.” 

Staffers said the proposed rule aims to protect properties (and people) from erosion and floods along the Colorado River by increasing the area where development is generally prohibited. “There’s a lot of erosion occurring,” Liz Johnston of the Watershed Protection Department said. “There’s mass wasting of certain banks, and in order to be secure that something is gonna last for … 50 years, 100 years, our erosion engineer that we spoke with recommended 400 feet to be safe.”

The commission recommended Council consider the impact of expanding the critical water quality zone on property owners and discuss ways to offset a potential loss of entitlements. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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