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

Multi-Platform Journalist

Olivia hosts and produces Community Impact Newspaper's podcasts, The Austin Breakdown, The Houston Breakdown and The DFW Breakdown. She launched the podcasts after nearly three years as a reporter for the newspaper, covering public health, business, development and Travis County government for the Central Austin edition. Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas.