Shocking stats on the development review process

Most people never have to deal with this - most people buy (if they’re lucky) a home that has already gone through this process or rent. So it is only a slim minority that understand how difficult it is to get anything done with your property in Austin. Good newsletter from Kirk Watson on some stats and a promise to fix them.

My letter, earlier today:

Dear Mayor Watson,

Thanks for the latest update in your Watson Wire. I’d like to add that every variance, zoning change, and staff reinterpretation of LDC rules that is granted is an incentive for subsequent projects to ask for more than is allowed by code. As you know, this mode of operation eats up staff’s time and energy. Rules are rules, and we’d all be better off if we stuck to them. Please put an end to the cynical comment “The LDC is where negotiations begin.”


David Piper


This kinds harkens to the idea that too many laws become unenforceable or discriminatorily enforced. Those that can afford to be able to wade through all this / hire someone to do it for them are the ones that get to develop land. The people who get the short end of the stick are the common home owners who maybe want to do something simple to their house that will - in many cases - actually be an improvement to the land use for the neighborhood. The board of adjustments doesn’t have a ‘betterment’ clause - as I think it should - where if all the neighbors agree and it’s simply a better use that doesn’t fit the letter of the law, it should be allowed.

But overall this entire process needs to be less burdensome so the common home owner and not just the developers with lots of cash can improve their houses/land.

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I think there are 2 different problems being conflated.

First, which is the focus of the article is summarized by this paragraph

With 11 different departments playing a role in the review process, McKinsey identified the siloed priorities and approaches in each of those departments as a major factor in the breakdown in the process. What we need is a “shared direction and ‘one team’ mindset and approach.” The siloed nature of City departments has been a recurring problem as we’ve spent this past 7 months working to reorganize the City for success.

The less nice way of saying it is that the process involves a whole lot of bureaucracy that is not designed to operate well together. This also has a lot more to do with how the city is organized and how the process is designed than it does with LDC. That issue can be fixed by updating process and reorganizing departments without touching LDC.

The second issue which I think you are speaking to has to do with a couple of issues. The first is the use of PUDs. The second is that many aspects of LDC are self conflicting and thus have to be negotiated on a case by case basis. The city has also failed to provide clarifying guidance on the conflicting LDC items in a cohesive manner which makes the item I mentioned above far more complciated.

PUDs are often used in situations where LDC cannot properly address the realities of the lot and the needs of the city as the last major LDC rewrite was in 1984, nearly 39 years ago, when Austin’s population was less than half what it is now and the sprawl into the surrounding areas hadn’t even begun.

The second issue is that there has been a patchwork of self conflicting additions to LDC from tree ordinance, to SOS ordinance, to mcmansion, to compatibility that were all done in isolation and as often occurs need a few iterations to really get them right once you start using them. Both of these issues could an would be resolved with an update to the 39 year old LDC. I dont know, like a next version of code??? What would we call it? I wonder why nobody has ever tried it? If they tried it, would anybody here be opposed?

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Please put an end to the cynical comment “The LDC is where negotiations begin.”

I’m amazed that this sentence, juxtaposed with the previous one, doesn’t plainly outline the problem: the LDC is where negotiations begin because the Code is so horrifically broken, though obviously there’s continued denialism about it and definitely strife over how to fix it. And, as Isaac correctly noted, code issues are discrete from the ones Mayor Watson was focusing on in his letter.

While I’m sure they didn’t come cheap, I was glad to see McKinsey hired for purposes of a badly needed reorg at City Hall. I have no problem with bureaucracy per se, and would argue that conservatives use it as pretext much too often, but Austin’s entire permitting & approval process – for everything, not just infill housing – is utterly appalling.

Case in point: my own mother sits on several nonprofit boards, one of which focuses on developing subsidized housing under Texas’s largely crippling rules mostly in opposition to them. Putting aside the question of where, specifically, subsidized housing should go, she found that nearly identical end products in both the Dallas and Austin area turned out largely similar, but the Dallas project cost a mere $20,000 for the developmental stage, whereas Austin’s was $175K! They had to scramble to come up with more funds solely because the city’s approval processes are so labyrinthine and convolutions – and those are cases that don’t require any zoning variances.

Regardless of what happens with the LDC, we BADLY need process change at City Hall.

Rules are rules, and we’d all be better off if we stuck to them.

I mention this example only because it came up earlier today, but barely 50 years ago, it was still against “the rules” throughout the South (meaning the law, and including Texas) to marry someone of a different race. Would we have been “better off” if we’d stuck to that rule? I assume my point is obvious, but rules aren’t just rules. By necessity they need to adapt & change with the times. The same is true for the LDC, even if SOS, CNC & every Austin NIMBY strongly begs to differ. (And if million-dollar teardowns in Zilker being the norm doesn’t convince you how badly things are warped, I don’t know what will.)

Keep up the good work Watson!

I had to pay a $1000 and wait a month to check the fire hydrant at Hether and Goodrich so I could get a permit. Why was this my responsibility? I also had to wait another month bc my siding over lapped my foundation by .25 of an inch. I wasn’t even close to a set back or protrude into the “Tent Rule”.

On my remodel plan I forgot to label “Bedroom 1” and “Bedroom 2” I only labeled them as “Bedrooms” I was sitting across from the reviewer and told her which one was which. She then said I would have to go back to the beginning of the line and wait another month bc it wouldn’t be fair to others. However, I can pay $5000 or so to the COA and skip to the head in the line. It’s unbelievable what happens in the review process.

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2 years in site plan bro… 2 years.

To build an office space that was needed and on a really cruddy part of land. Smart Car pulled their plug and that triggered me back to the front of the line.

Its obviously taxing.

This is main reason why low-income housing is not planned or built bc site plan and permitting is a very rigorous time suck… and money.

Prior to Mayor Watson being elected- we had him over at a home here in Zilker, along with Cecilia (Alter as well) and they claimed they would work on developers that want to create low income housing if they could expedite- but to date, no plans or no more chat about it bc… elections are over!

Dr. Nicholas Vaughan

Not to be an apologist for elected officials but this report this post is about is the work product of the current council trying to fix the problem from an organization and process standpoint.

As for Land Development Code, (LDC), it’s thousands of pages of code built up over half a century intertwined with state rules, legal precedents, and just dealing with the realities of what is in place now, so this isn’t an quick fix.

There is a cohesive effort to get this going and if all goes well, and nobody sues the city and delays this for 4 years, we could stuff to show for it in the next few months. There has been no shortage of plans or chat (to use your words) but they may have gotten drowned out by budget and Zilker park politics in the last 6 to 8 weeks.

Page 5 of this document from the city is the most interesting one if you don’t want to dive too deep.

The ANC has made a nice little powerpoint of the changes you can see here

Maybe someone closer to the ANC can comment on what the ANC’s stance is on these changes, if they support or oppose aspects of it, which aspects, and for the ones the oppose what alternatives they offer. I’m pretty sure I know the answers to those questions, but I wouldn’t want to put words in anybodies mouth?

In case you need further validation that things are happening or want to inform yourself more fully, heres a litany of articles I gathered in just a few minutes.

The Residential side is real easy,

7 ft set back for two stories. Tent rule still exists. 45% impervious cover still stays the same. Any over hang over 2 feet counts toward impervious cover. No FAR. Impervious cover will keep FAR at bay. IT ALWAYS DOES (If someone thinks it won’t, show me; I challenge anyone!) I have pitched this to Architects and Neighborhoods and they just say it won’t work. It makes architects less relevant and won’t allow Neighborhoods something to manipulate. So they discount it.

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You brought up another pet peeve about austin LDC.

Austin is the only city in Texas that I know of that required an architect (as opposed to a Professional Engineer) for normal scale residential construction. Other cities only require architects once you go over certain sized, heights, or are building in a weird spot like dangling on a cliff.

Small as this may seem it’s a significant cost adder and puts a bottleneck as architects who want to build a boring house at boring house prices are hard to come to by. Architects charge a percentage of total build vs engineers that charge per hour.

Classic misdirection, This is Process; This is Organization.

Agree. I personally think we should allow 4 stories or more. Maybe in exchange for increased setbacks or reduced impervious cover. Also the impervious cover rules need adjusting - there are many porous materials that are still classified as 100% impervious.

I understand the height criticism of ‘not wanting people looking down in your backyard’ - but I kinda think ya gotta just get over that one in the interest of more housing.

This original post is about “Getting out of our own way” A referencing the amount of time and revisits in the review process. What do you think they are revisiting and getting in their own way with?

In terms of impervious, disallowing living space over parking or else it counts as far makes for idiotic and inefficient use of space. Same with the garage door rules that convert parking into far.

I actually think that getting rid of the rules around parking would allow for very reasonable construction without messing with impervious. The special materials would only matter for walkways anyways which aren’t huge.

The real fix to impervious is allowing retention ponds on property for an owner who wants them via reasonable process.

There’s also placement issues which would be alleviated by clarifying the tree ordinance which is written in a vague and discretionary way and allowing for additional placement options (like flexibility on tent rules and setbacks) when required to protect a tree.

It’s ultimately not just one tule that messes up reality. It’s the way they all combine. You could actually protest the intent of most of it if you clarified priorities, built flexibility in, and got rid of a small number of things whose value is unclear (rules about parking under living space, rules about parking placement , some aspects of impervious definition, rules that biggest house must be in front and no side by side. )

Or sports courts :stuck_out_tongue: But also some of the alternate fake grass.

A couple of questions for Issac. Why does there need to be thousands of pages of LDC code? Also don’t add safety code into the mix. Stair height and egress rules should not be used to exacerbate the issue. Of course those should stay and have taken time through trial and error. Issac ,when was the last time you pulled a permit and what for?

Sorry - not sure what you’re referencing, but yes I diverged a bit as far as simplifying I agree with everything you’ve said.

That’s funny, A personal pet peeve of mine is why COA began having 2 story projects require an engineer to certify structures. Adds 5-10K ish and months to permit. Architects by their licences are certified to build 4 stories in wood. How many times have you heard of home structures falling down? I can’t think of one.

There don’t need to be thousands of pages of code, but there are. Any effort to fix code has to begin with reality, and this is our reality. I am not against you here, this is just what anybody working on this today has as a starting point.

Safety and construction rules mostly come from other sources like IBC and other similar standards for various trades. Typically code just mentions which standards are applied and relevant to projects. This is generally true in Austin.

Last big permit I pulled was in Dallas for a major renovation. I tried to start the process here twice and quickly gave up because I didn’t have it in me. I realized my time and money was better spent just buying something else. I have also done an unpermitted major reno in Spicewood (not required there). I am not unfamiliar with how to get things built. I have pulled 2 permits in this city for minor things and in retrospect regret not just doing them unpermited because even the simplest things dragged on for months and had high fees. I have now engaged with architects twice to begin the process twice, went through quite an educational process about how Austin keeps construction weird, and decided that it would be best for my mental health to not go through the build. I am still disappointed that this has to be the reality here, hence why I feel so strongly that code/the city should clearly say what is possible (not the current reality), quickly confirm that your plans match requirements (not something the city is currently able to do), and then get the hell out of your way (absolutely not the cities MO). That last sentence describes my experience in Dallas.

I didn’t realize COA require and engineer in addition to the architect. Just the engineer should be enough. Similarly, just an architect should be enough. Engineers cost less than architects and there are a hell of a lot more of them. The architect requirement is unique to Austin (can send you plenty of proof in a PM if you like).

I don’t know if this is clear enough, but I’m on your side here. Code is fucked. The process in Austin is fucked. I can buy a brand new 2500 sq ft house in Buda WITH LAND for 450k that was built in a few months but I can’t build the same house on land I already own in less than a year in Austin for under 600k. Thats fucked.

I have been pulling permits in Austin for 25 years. It has only gotten more ridiculous every time. I have a lot of experience with aspects of the residential side of things, however I do not consider myself a “builder”. I am competent enough to do every trade to code from the foundation to roof and everything in between. This includes plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. I’ve done it many times.

I am a market analyst and economist by education and career. As an analyst I knew if I did not understand these things I would be taken advantage of. So I started at the bottom and worked with every trade to learn them and study them.

I say this not to boost my ego, but to say I have a very good understanding of these things and where the breakdowns in the system occur. I don’t know everything but I have a far better grasp than most.

And BTW, you have it backwards on the Architect/Engineer thing. An Architect is an engineer as it regards wood construction under 4 stories. Architects are also cheaper than engineers.