City considering changes to floodplain redevelopment

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Austin City Photo

Thursday July 7th, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Business owners in the city’s floodplain will soon be able to make modifications to their buildings or rebuild them entirely so that flash floods pose less of a threat — to structures as well as employees and customers.

The city code change, which is currently making its way through councils and commissions, will allow commercial buildings in the floodplain to redevelopment without special permission from the city council. On Tuesday, the Zoning and Platting Commission was the latest body to discuss the code change.

“What this exception does is it provides options for existing buildings that we know are too low, that we know don’t have safe access, and hopefully that improves the situation,” Jameson Courtney of the Watershed Protection Department told ZAP in a presentation. “It’s not ideal, but it is a solution.”

The exception requires several criteria to be met. The new building must replace or modify an existing building, and it cannot be larger than the original; the first floor should be two feet above the century-old floodplain; the additional parking cannot be in the floodplain; and redevelopment must not aggravate flooding elsewhere. The exception does not apply to certain uses, including schools and factories. Many older buildings are in the floodplain in the first place due to lax flood regulations in the past.

Courtney stressed that the change does not override zoning regulations such as height or impervious cover limits. “It’s not an exception that’s going to let someone tear down a one-story restaurant and build a 10-story office building,” he said.

After questions from the commissioners, ZAP voted to postpone a recommendation until July 26 to allow for further discussion. The Planning Commission will also discuss the change on July 12.

The exception follows general updates to floodplain regulations in 2019 spurred by Atlas 14, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that predicted worsening flash flooding in central Texas.

Among those updates was a residential exception – a rule allowing floodplain homes to rebuild if they meet certain conditions. Instead of extending this exception to commercial structures, Council directed staff members to work with stakeholders and various city departments to draft a separate ordinance for commercial buildings. With that work nearing completion, the code change is expected to be passed by city council on September 1.

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