What the Ordinance Says

The current draft of the proposed Travis Co. Conservation Development Ordinance defines two things: the incentives available to landowners and developers who enter into a CD agreement and the minimum conservation standards they must meet to earn and keep incentives. Electing to do a project under the CDO is voluntary. But once developers go down this path, they must meet the standards defined.

To qualify, a property must be in an unincorporated area outside any city's extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) and already enjoy an agricultural/wildlife tax exemption (which the CDO basically extends). The focus is on residential developments; however, the CDO can include an innovative program for other kinds of commercial development, as a way of encouraging its location in preferred areas (such as those already developed along major roads). The initial pilot program is proposed for five properties and five years.

Below we do our best to summarize some key features in the 40-plus-page CDO. Wonks can read every word of the latest draft as updates are posted at www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr.

Key Conservation Standards

50% conservation space. On each tract, half the land can't be developed and must be conserved as open space in perpetuity. The land preserved – "conservation space" – needs to include 75% of "significant and meaningful ecological assets" – that is, the features most worth conserving.

10-acre minimum. The county may increase this to a 20-acre minimum, to correlate with state requirements for agricultural/wildlife tax exemptions. A minimum parcel size protects the county against wasting incentive funds on small parcels unlikely to be developed.

15% impervious cover. Reduced roadway and driveway standards also help to limit impervious cover – and infrastructure costs to developers.

Green building. Energy and water conservation features each would yield savings of 15% above state code. Detailed design criteria are provided for landscaping and irrigation, but the CDO does not require rainwater harvesting or gray-water reuse. Construction materials must be 10% recycled or reclaimed; 50% of debris must be diverted from landfills. Alternative resource conservation standards are also allowed.

Good building. Hard to mandate, but the CDO tries, by requiring features such as rural character buffers and "dark sky" lighting standards. A CD design manual is under development.

Ecological assets management plan. An initial ecological assessment must be performed, and the conservation space must be maintained in accordance with an approved plan, paid for by the developer.

Enforcement. An owners association enforces ongoing adherence to the terms of the CDO, including protection of the open space.

Key Incentives

Credits toward conservation space. These credits allow the developer to count acreage that's already unbuildable toward the required standard of "50% Conservation Space." The credits lessen the net gain in open space (and the relative benefit to the public and the environment) but make a CD project more economically feasible for a developer. Fifty percent credit is proposed for land already protected from development by flood-plain requirements, Clean Water Act buffer-zone requirements, etc.; 5% credit is proposed for "scenic buffer" zones (such as a line of preserved trees that hides the new houses); 10% credit is proposed for land that's developed for "active recreational use," such as ball fields. Up to 10% of the conservation space may be used for wastewater disposal. In addition, the county's standard requirement for dedicating parkland is waived. The percentage of credits for unbuildable areas is controversial: some developers have pushed for more, while environmentalists want less.

Streamlined approval process. For the developer, this is huge. Each CDO application gets special staff assistance to help expedite the process. Projects that meet all CDO standards and require no variances are administratively approved – eliminating the usual costly and lengthy process of gaining approval from the Commissioners Court. Limited administrative variances and adjustments can be granted. This provides a major motivator for the developer to meet the letter of the CDO.

Reimbursements and financial help. Numerous permit fees are reimbursed. Up to $10,000 of the cost to prepare the required ecological assessment or assets management plan will be rebated. Financial assistance may be provided for managing open space. Special tax abatements can be approved.

Annual payments. These $6/acre payments reward landowners for entering into a CD agreement on undeveloped ag-exempt land. Annual payment (with term limits) equals property taxes paid to the county and school district.

Lump-sum payments. These $600/acre payments equal any county tax rollback triggered solely by development under the CDO. $500,000 cap.

Other Key Features

Agreement "runs with the land"

May be entered into in advance of development, or at time of land subdivision

If the agreement is violated, a subdivision must be developed under standard regulations, and incentives are terminated.

The total in incentives paid cannot exceed the market value of the land placed under conservation easement.

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