The Austin Chronicle

Permitting Pains

How will the new code affect the way you renovate your house?

By Richard Whittaker, June 9, 2017, News

The complex draft zoning maps drawn up as part of the city of Austin's CodeNEXT project most likely seem conceptual. They only become reality when homeowners and developers start pulling permits.

Casey Giles, the regulatory committee chair for the Greater Austin Contractors & Engineers Association, describes permitting policy as breaking down into two worlds. First, the horizontal – the experience most homeowners go through: pulling a permit for a remodel, getting inspections for their property, and closing those permits out. There's also the vertical, which more often impacts developers. Giles describes that piece as: "You can build something 'this big' here, 'this big' here."

The horizontal has not yet been CodeNEXT's focus. Energy thus far has been expended on the vertical, as expressed in the maps being circulated and studied ad nauseam. While many people have been left baffled by the minutiae, Giles is optimistic that the details could make life easier for developers; clear and defined maps will give them a quicker guide to the viability of individual projects. "It's so prescriptive with sizes and shapes," he said, "and it does away with random tents and articulations and some of the more complex set-back issues – that it should help."

The basic permitting approval process will remain untouched. But Giles sees a few potential pitfalls, particularly with regard to the handling of detention ponds, runoff, and beneficial uses of storm- and waste-water for purposes such as irrigation. "That's going to be very difficult to design," he said, "which means it's going to be harder to permit, because anything that is harder to design is harder to permit."

What he doesn't expect to change is what he called "the culture at One Texas Center" – the home of the city's Devel­op­ment Services Department, 505 Barton Springs Rd. Austin's permitting process is notoriously more stringent than any surrounding municipality ("I've had 20-30 pages of comments, when in other cities I've had three or four," said Giles), and the department has faced years of understaffing and inspectors with high workloads, which CodeNEXT does not broach.

There's a bigger concern for permitting in Austin, that has nothing to do with CodeNEXT. On June 6, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his call for a legislative special session, due to start July 18. Among red meat conservative items such as the bathroom bill and abortion restrictions were a trifecta of developer-friendly proposals. Abbott wants a ban on changing rules midway through a construction project; strict time limits on processing permit applications; and, in a shot aimed directly at the city of Austin, an end to the Heritage Tree Ordinance.

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