Travis County considers adding more reviewers to improve development process, starting with Tesla project

A photo of Tesla's gigafactory site from above
Tesla's new gigafactory will be the first development to have a third-party reviewer as it goes through Travis County's review process. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Tesla's new gigafactory will be the first development to have a third-party reviewer as it goes through Travis County's review process. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Travis County Development Services has proposed using third-party consultants to aid in development review, easing what staff called “bottlenecks” in the process. The county plans to work with a third-party reviewer during the development of Tesla’s future southeast Travis County "gigafactory,” using the experience to guide future projects.

Anna Bowlin, the Travis County division director of development services, told county commissioners at an Aug. 27 meeting that an influx of permit applications, especially for residential developments and traffic impact analyses, made third-party consultants a compelling option. Complicated regulations related to changing flood plains maps due to the Atlas 14 rainfall study of 2019 are also a factor in slowing down review, she said.

“We have a fixed amount of staff, and we don’t have control over the amount of applications that come in. Sometimes we do get backed up, so that’s one of the things that makes third-party review be something that we want to consider,” Bowlin said.

External reviewers could shorten the review process for developments in the county’s queue, Bowlin said, as well as bringing in new areas of expertise that would help streamline and innovate review.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who sponsored the plan, said Travis County was dealing with “a capacity issue, plain and simple.”

“A process that is not watched and managed, that doesn’t change in 15 years, is a process that might have been really good 15 years ago, but the way that we do work and the volume of work that we do has changed. So it’s important for us to take a holistic look,” Travillion said.

According to Bowlin’s proposed timeline, her staff will create a scope of services for third-party review by Oct. 1. From October to January, they will work with the county’s purchasing department to vet a short list of possible contractors to serve as reviewers. Then, external review will be implemented in stages, isolating particular subject areas such as drainage or roadway design to test the process from February to July 2021. Beginning in August, complete projects may begin to use third-party review.

Ahead of this general process, Travis County plans to test the waters with Tesla’s gigafactory. Part of Tesla’s development agreement with the county involved a commitment for the company to secure a third-party reviewer to oversee development, although Travis County will still be responsible for ensuring all codes and regulations are maintained.

Bowlin called this a “pilot program” for third-party review in a brief prepared for commissioners and said “lessons learned during this pilot program should be incorporated into an ongoing third-party regulatory development review strategy.”

Several representatives from the Travis County real estate and development community supported the addition of independent reviewers.

“Travis County has the reputation of having one of the most inefficient review processes in Texas,” said Geoffrey Tahuahua, the vice president of policy and government affairs for the Real Estate Council of Austin. “We believe that the issues in Travis County are largely due to a number of outdated and inefficient rules and standards as well as an understaffed review department. It is the right time to improve this process, especially as large and complex projects like Tesla enter the market. Without changes made now, the inefficiencies will continue to slow down projects that have a negative impact on affordability for all.”

Richard Maier, a vice president at Lennar Homes, a major residential developer in Travis County and nationally, said a slow review process had risked at least one Lennar development of affordable homes.

Maier said he submitted an application nearly a year ago that is still in transportation impact analysis review, and in early October he has a deadline to purchase a $4 million water commitment.

"If we don’t have our preliminary plan approved, I’m not going to be able to write that check,” Maier said. “This is an example of a place where I think if we’d had third-party review a year ago for our TIA, we probably would be much further along than we are now.”
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


Photo of boarded-up Sixth Street bars
With COVID-19 projections 'bleak' through Thanksgiving, Travis County keeps bars closed

Statistical models from the University of Texas show a 92% chance the pandemic is worsening, but the increase in cases and hospitalizations have leveled off in the last few days.

Movemint Bike Cab owner David Knipp said the loss of the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals during the spring festival season led to a 50% decline in revenue.  (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
'I just need to pay the rent:' Austin small businesses in survival mode are doing everything in their power to outlast the pandemic

From selling inventory to flipping their business models to changing a yoga studio into a coworking space, small business owners are trying to avoid adding their names to the growing list of locally owned Austin institutions that have shut down.

Customers can order Goodstock Angus and Goodstock Black Label beef, including ribeye steaks, strip steaks, filets and ground chuck. (Courtesy Nolan Ryan brands)
Nolan Ryan expands Round Rock-based butcher business and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Burnet Road at West Braker Lane
Corridor projects along South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road will break ground by early 2021

Two corridor roadway projects approved in the city of Austin’s 2016 Mobility Bond are moving forward after recently receiving environmental clearances.

An "I Voted" sticker is left outside the Northwest Recreation Center in Austin, one of 37 early voting polling places open in Travis County. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
More than half of all Travis County voters have cast their ballots, exceeding early voting turnout percentage in 2016

More than 448,000 votes have been cast in Travis County. Early voting closes on Oct. 30.

Austin ISD trustees met Oct. 26, discussing in-person learning during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Twice as many Austin elementary students have returned to campus compared to first day of in-person instruction, district says

Austin ISD will open its campuses to accommodate all students who request in-person instruction beginning Nov. 2.

Capital Metro released new renderings Oct. 26 of its proposed Project Connect expansion, which voters will decide Nov. 3. This rendering shows a Blue Line light rail train at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Rendering courtesy Capital Metro)
In final week of early voting, here is what Austin residents should know about Project Connect

The proposition appears as a 237-word block of text near the end of the ballot but boils down to a simple question: Are voters for or against a significant expansion of local public transportation, paid for in part with property tax funds?

East West Manufacturing will retain 30 jobs and create an additional 30 new jobs for a total of 60 full-time jobs in Round Rock over five years, according to an economic incentive agreement signed Oct. 22. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Round Rock to add 60 jobs and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

Gati, a new coconut milk ice cream shop run by Thai Fresh owner Jam Santichat, is now open in East Austin. (Courtesy Jam Santichat)
New Hopdoddy location, coconut milk ice cream and more East Austin business news

Several new businesses have opened in or are on their way to Central-East Austin.

Austin FC logo
Austin FC partners with Special Olympics Texas to field MLS Unified team

As Major League Soccer franchise Austin FC starts play in its upcoming season, the team will help to field a squad made up of Special Olympics Texas athletes for a series of matches.

A screen shot of Elon Musk speaking into a microphone
Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirms 2021 opening for Travis County gigafactory

Musk said construction is moving apace at the new electric auto factory east of Austin.