San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 13th, 2008
Sprawl stall

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – Seeking alternatives to sprawl, Hays County Commissioners are drafting new development regulations with two tools suited specifically for that purpose. And if the tools in the code don’t work, commissioners believe they can make their point with pictures.

The proposed chapters of the new regulations would provide for development agreements and economic incentives, similar to tools used by cities to influence developments meeting their preferences, particularly in their extra-territorial jurisdictions. The present county development regulations, written in 1997, contain no such provisions.

Cities have the authority to prescribe land use and zone property for specific purposes. However, cities are pragmatically limited in the requirements they can demand from developers, lest they should face lawsuits.

Counties are even more restricted in the extent to which they can mandate development specifications, for they lack the authority to even zone property uses.

However, if cities and counties can’t demand certain types of development, they certainly can incentivize it, hence the new tools under consideration by the county in its draft of development regulations. Development agreements buttressed by economic incentives would enable the county to encourage development standards that it can’t legally require.

Commissioners are hopeful that the use of incentives can steer the style of future development away from the type of sprawl common by now to much of the American landscape. Sprawl is characterized by development designs convenient for the automobile, which has the effect of making them practically accessible only by automobile. Among the alternatives to sprawling design is the so-called “new urbanism,” characterized by high density, mixed uses, walkable streetscaping and carefully designed open spaces.

However, commissioners say incentives won’t be enough to truly stimulate the more imaginative developments. Thus, commissioners are considering the inclusion of graphic examples, showing developers who check the codes exactly the kinds of projects the county would prefer.

The codes, then, would contain a section or addendum giving visual depictions of well-known new urbanist favorites like Seaside, FL, and other mixed-use developments. Commissioners believe such examples would stimulate developers to consider such projects, or at least inform them of the county’s desires.

“I know very few developers who read codes,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle). “I know very few investors who read codes. But they will look at a picture … We think of codes as being these dry things and all we really want in the codes is to help people understand the kind of development we want in the community.”

Developers could still develop to the codes, but commissioners would rather discourage the sprawling outcomes all but guaranteed by the minimums. Showing alternatives to developers early in the process, said Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos), could work to the county’s advantage.

“Developers learn about these things very late in the game,” Conley said, “and to ask them to go back (and retrofit) after they’ve spent $100,000 is asking a lot.”

Said Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs), “Let’s leave the minimums and try to get away from them being the standard.”

Commissioners and county staff could use economic incentives and development agreements to create other types of outcomes, as well. For example, said Grant Jackson of Naismith Engineering, the county could use the agreements to creatively fund infrastructure in new developments. Developers also could enter agreements if they want to make future development even more restrictive than the county regulations require.

As the regulations are presently drafted, the county would be allowed to offer four kinds of economic incentives – rebates on application fees, rebates on usage fees, property tax exemptions and fee-in-lieu contributions.

Commissioners anticipate another meeting on April 15 to discuss the draft with Jackson, who the county is consulting on the matter. Jackson said the process of drafting the agreement and holding the required public hearings makes it likely the new document won’t go into force until this fall.

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