We have a lot to unpack in this newsletter – matters that regard how Austin will look and live for us – now, and in the future for our children and grandchildren.
This paper is an example of how transparent I will be as your next Mayor of Austin. We should expect all candidates to be transparent and divulge their standings on the issues and what their proposed solutions are, so that we may cast informed votes.
CAMPAIGN POSITION PAPER:
“Development Permitting & The Land Development Code”
ULTIMATE GOALS are to:
- Preserve the Beauty of Austin & the Character of Its Unique Pockets
- Finally Reach a Compromise for a Simplified LDC & a Streamlined Building Permitting Process
- Increase Diversity of Housing & Supply of Housing
After review of the record and key source documentation with regard to development permitting and land development code zoning in Austin (including previous Council direction), and after consulting with professional builders and architects, I have synthesized the following set of recommendations for policy changes. The different stakeholders must realize by now that an “all-or-nothing” approach hasn’t worked, and that we must all work together to cut a path of compromise.
Below is my preliminary plan to simplify permitting and deliver results in the form of increased diversity of housing and overall supply of housing, as well as of commercial space, within Austin. Additional recommendations to follow.
These ideas could be taken piecemeal and incorporated into the existing Land Development Code, city budget, criteria manuals, and related municipal codes, or they could possibly be the basis of a new simplified LDC revision, but these recommendations are not dependent upon a complete LDC rewrite.
“Neither we, nor do we think anyone else, is smart enough to write a Code, policies, or regulations that cover all likely situations that occur in most development projects. Staff needs to use some common sense, solve problems, and use whatever reasonable discretion the codes may allow.” (Zucker Report Ex.Sum., p.3)
- Establish Shorter Review Timelines: Industry Preferred max for Residential Review = 14 days, Subdivision = 45 days, Site Plan = 45 days. Overall need to keep improving and simplifying the development review process. Recent situation: “The permitting process takes roughly 4 months, and site development or subdivision plan approvals can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Some said they’ve waited 2 years for a site development plan.” (Austin Business Journal, Hardison, June 14, 2021).
- Consolidate All Reviews into a Single Department: Currently, customers have to navigate 12+ reviewing city departments. If one department were tasked with coordinating the ~12 departments, this should be a “liaison” or “project manager” approach. “One Stop Shop” at one location has not entirely solved the problem. There continue to be coordination problems between DSD and the other 12 reviewing City departments with regard to processing applications for development permits. Explained: “When there are numerous functions and departments involved in the development process, it often leads to long timelines, lack of coordination between functions, and lack of clarity regarding requirements and conditions. The applicant is often left to fend for themselves and weave their way through the system.” (Zucker Report, 2015)
- Charge Fees Based on the Size of the Project: Recently, a single lot being subdivided into two lots has a ~$10K fee – the same fee for subdividing 30 acres into 180 lots. Some development review fees need to be reduced. Some of the development fee increases of the current budget (2021-2022) need to be rolled back. Additionally, there should be a moratorium on new or increased development fees.
- All operational reviewing departments need to periodically update/revise their criteria manuals. If review criteria are not in writing, then they should not be invoked by city employees on applicants. There should not be any truly “unwritten rules.”
- Perform comprehensive review upon initial application. New comments to be cured should not be added in subsequent reviews, unless the applicant has materially changed the application.
- Fill all “open” DSD job positions (many are still currently “open”).
- Austin Build+Connect (AB+C) permitting and payment portal is not user-friendly and online software responsiveness needs to be improved (esp. for new acct. opening.)
Land Development Code
“The development community, as well as property owners and homeowners, need more predictability and clarity from the land development code,” architect Peter Pfeiffer, continuing: “For example, right now there are so many ‘conditional overlays’ and additional ordinances that could be affecting a piece of property that it is like reading through the IRS tax code when one is trying to figure out what restrictions and issues are associated with a given piece of property.”
(Conditional overlays should cease being initiated and any code rewrite should consider not using conditional overlays, with the possible exception of existing historical NCCD’s.)
Scope of Code Revision
Depending on the outcome of the CodeNEXT court appeal, if a comprehensive revision of the LDC is pursued, the text and map should be approved separately; approve a new simplified Land Development Code (text only), with the effective date deferred until Council adopts the new zoning map (incorporating input from property owners). The zoning map might be considered as a series of Small Area Plans, each incorporating stakeholder input.
If a comprehensive revision of the LDC is pursued, the City Manager should work to deliver a code revision that actually is simplified, and can be applied consistently, but which does not reduce existing land development entitlement nor infringe on protest rights.
New Housing Capacity
Plan for new housing capacity of at least 145,000 new housing units in order to achieve the 135,000 additional housing units recommended by the City’s Strategic Housing Blueprint. (The City’s Strategic Housing Blueprint, adopted by Council in 2017, is a 10-year plan.)
Make better progress toward achieving the above by allowing development of smaller houses on smaller lots. Reduce Minimum Single Family Lot Size to 5,000′ SF from the current 5,750′ SF. (Similarly, allow ADU’s on min. lot sizes of 5,000′ SF from the current min. of 5,750′ SF.) The point of this is to allow at least one reasonable subdivision of large SF lots. The minimum lot size in some areas of town might be 5,000′ SF, given the current zoning and size of the lots; in other areas of town under a slightly different residential zone it might reasonably be 4,000′ SF. Deed Restrictions should still control/take precedent.
Code revisions to provide additional housing capacity should include reducing minimum lot size (to 5,000′ SF) and lot width (to 50′ ft. min.), where not prohibited by Deed Restrictions. Subdivisions certainly have the ability to modify their controlling Deed Restrictions before the zoning changes may take effect.
Diversity of Housing
The Land Development Code and zoning map should provide for a greater diversity of housing types toward ownership. The so-called ‘Missing Middle’ should include greater use of townhomes, duplexes, and accessory dwelling units (ADU’s), where appropriate.
Where Not Prohibited by Deed Restrictions, Allow ADU’s in Most SF Zones: Increase maximum allowed size of ADU’s from 1,100′ SF to 2,000′ SF, and from 15% of lot size to 20% of lot size, to increase flexibility & to facilitate increase in housing stock. Local control with Deed Restrictions should be the main limiting factor for ADU’s.
Where appropriate, allow new housing types to qualify as ADU’s, including existing homes being preserved. Over time establish a selection of pre-approved ADU building plans for sale by private Austin design professionals (architects). (Response to Res. No. 20200409-080, Truelove, June 25, 2021, p. 5) When appropriate, use the SMART Housing affordable housing incentive program in combination with pre-approved ADU plans in order to streamline the ADU permitting process. (Truelove, June 25, 2021, p. 6) The City should also identify “a single point of contact or facilitator to help every client of this ADU program navigate the process from beginning to end.” (Unlocking ADU’s…, Univ. of TX., Peterson, Lyons, Hetherington, Batas, Fortney, Applegate, August 2020, p. 40)
Review non-zoning regulations related to Austin Energy and Austin Water for changes that can significantly impact the cost of housing development (i.e., submetering, etc.)
Compatibility Standards – The Need for a Workable Compromise
Reduce the impact of compatibility standards (building height of commercial relative to nearby SF housing) to between the current code and what was proposed in the LDC Revisions, Drafts 3 & 4. Start by doing away with Compatibility Standards beyond 300 ft. distance (which currently extends out to 540 ft.), as per the ZAP/Duncan compatibility compromise proposal of 2018. “By reducing the protected distance to 300 feet (a football field), and initiating a more graduated floor-stepping incline pattern, compatibility can better serve both neighborhoods and builders.” (“Defining and Testing Compatibility,” ZAP/Duncan 2018, p.8) “After the first 100 ft. (distance from SF), the ZAP compromise stair-steps height limits from 45 to 75 feet in 10 foot increments every 50 ft. (distance).” (ZAP/Duncan 2018, p.15)
In order to reach a compromise, a variation on the above might be from 45 to 85 or 90 feet height in 10 to 15 foot increments every 50 ft. (distance) from 100 feet up to 300 feet distance from SF residential. So, 90 feet height allowed at 300 ft. distance from SF. No compatibility height requirements beyond 300 ft. distance from Single Family residential. The height of any commercial building beyond 300 ft. from SF to be determined by zoning, not compatibility.
ZAP/Duncan tested their recommendation around the city on most activity corridors to show efficacy for development needs. Further, frustration with Article 10 Commercial Standards has been caused as much by overly prescriptive design rules as by limited building heights. Regulating civic uses, scale and clustering rules, and parking and setback tables are all too prescriptive. The ZAP/Duncan compatibility compromise proposal addressed these to help builders by simplifying planning and permitting. (ZAP/Duncan 2018, p.12)
Remove FAR (floor-to-area ratio) limits in the Downtown area as per the recent Design Commission recommendations (bounded roughly by Lady Bird Lake, IH-35, MLK Blvd., Guadalupe to W 6th St., and where appropriate as far west as Lamar to Lady Bird Lake).
There should be an ongoing robust city-led testing process to assess the impact of zoning and non-zoning regulations that includes participation by Austin private sector design and technical professionals, including architects (AIA), landscape architects, and engineers.
Minimum Parking Requirements
The City’s minimum parking space requirement per housing unit could be modified. Presently, the minimum is as many as 2 parking spaces per housing unit. Some would like it to be zero parking spaces per housing unit. I think it is reasonable to reduce the minimum parking space requirement per single family housing unit down to 1 parking space per unit. That is just the minimum – property owners should still be allowed to build 2 or more parking spaces per unit to their preference.
As a professional who has worked in the Austin building industry for more than 30 years, and as a resident of Austin neighborhoods for more than 50 years, it is my hope that identifying the above reasonable solutions within the Austin development debate can help to focus the participants on practical solutions, instead of unsuccessful “all-or-nothing” efforts that have been pursued on these issues in recent years by Austin’s policy makers.
2022 Candidate for Austin Mayor
Please contribute! Help us get the word out – on my practical solutions! If you are All-In to Restore Austin back to a safe, beautiful world-class city, please join me and let’s DO THIS together! Thank you to those who have already contributed in this campaign cycle (maximum allowed per individual is $400/$800 per couple). Let’s continue driving the agenda!
We Love Austin,