Seemingly every session of the state Legislature arrives with lawmakers proposing to curtail Austin’s environmental rules, but, unlike in many other years, an Austin politician is now carrying that banner.
State Rep. Paul Workman, a Republican who represents parts of South and Southwest Austin and western Travis County, has filed a series of bills that would weaken many of Austin’s development restrictions.
Workman said he is representing constituents who think Austin has been overstepping its legal authority and the bounds of good judgment, an opinion shared by the Texas attorney general. Some observers say Workman is using the shadow of the Capitol to pressure the Austin City Council, noting that he filed some of his proposals just as the council began a high-profile debate about whether to scrap the city’s so-called grandfathering rules, a move that would open some land for more dense development under statewide standards.
He has also filed legislation that would undermine Austin’s landmark Save Our Springs Ordinance.
“We’ve gotten into a situation (in Austin) where people are limited to using less than 15 percent of their property. That effectively renders a piece of property useless and really is a government taking,” said Workman, founder of Workman Commercial Construction Services.
Austin’s city staff and the Texas Municipal League say Workman’s proposals aren’t just the traditional Austin bashing because they would affect cities such as San Antonio, which has a tree protection ordinance that one of Workman’s bills would weaken.
“The Legislature is increasingly anti-regulation, so there is always the worry that these bills could pass,” said John Hrncir, who manages the city of Austin’s lobbying efforts.
Workman filed a series of bills March 8, the deadline for filing legislation, that would likely settle the grandfathering debate. They would make state standards more development-friendly while weakening Austin’s case that it is allowed to maintain its own, stricter standards.
The Real Estate Council of Austin has been pushing the City Council to change the grandfathering rules because it contends Austin’s rules are illegal, a conclusion shared by the city staff. Under pressure from both the real-estate and environmental lobbies, the City Council has been debating the issue for more than a month and plans to return to the issue Thursday.
Another Workman proposal would limit Austin’s ability to enforce the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which voters approved in the mid-1990s to limit development that could pollute the watersheds that feed Barton Springs.
Under the SOS Ordinance, only 15 percent to 25 percent of a property can be covered by pavement or structures if that property sits over Austin’s portion of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Other city rules can further restrict development.
Workman’s bill would allow a developer to build on at least half of a property. A city that restricts development any further would have to pay the property owner market value for land rendered unsuitable for development.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the bulwark for Austin against such proposals, said the Legislature shouldn’t step into what he considers a city matter.
“People who oppose development rules that Austin has lived under for more than 20 years have every right to try to change them through traditional democratic means at City Hall,” Watson said. “But when they start to turn legislators — most of whom live a long way from Austin — into a city of Austin appeals court, it starts to look a little undemocratic. That’s why the Legislature has been so skeptical of Austin-bashing bills in recent years. And it’s why I think legislators will be skeptical of these, as well.”
City of Austin environmental officer Chuck Lesniak said the bill also contradicts other standards across the state, including subdivision rules that in many places set the development limit at 45 percent. He said cities would be unable to afford to enforce such limits if Workman’s bill becomes law.
“There is a tremendous amount of science out there that correlates the amount of impervious cover in watersheds with flooding and pollutants in the water,” Lesniak said. “We’re the second-fastest-growing city in the country. … A lot of that is because of how desirable Austin is, and that has a lot to do with these regulations and what they’re protecting. These bills really take a short-sighted view of our economy.”
Another of Workman’s bills would, for the sake of wildfire protection, allow property owners to circumvent tree-protection rules in the Austin area and San Antonio.
Austin requires permission from the city arborist to cut down a tree with a trunk 19 or more inches wide, and in some cases, if permission is granted, the city also requires paying into a tree-planting fund. The city’s “heritage tree” ordinance also requires a property owner to prove, in the case of some species, that a tree with a trunk 24 inches or more wide cannot be saved.
Workman said those requirements prevent property owners from preparing for wildfires, such as the ones that raged through Bastrop and western Travis counties in 2011.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure there are no barriers to people protecting their homes,” Workman said. “In the (2011) fires we lost 2,000 homes. In some cases, they were up against a greenbelt and weren’t allowed to remove (potentially threatening) trees.”
The Texas Municipal League disagrees. In a letter to state Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, chairman of the House committee through which the bill must pass, the Municipal League states that cities commonly allow tree removal for safety purposes. The organization contends the legislation’s main effect would be to “allow a property owner or a developer to clear cut.”