Land development rule revisions lie ahead for Buda

In the dozen years since the city of Buda wrote its rules governing how land can be developed in the city, its population has more than tripled, several large-scale developments have been built and the vision of both city leaders and residents for what the city should be has changed.

"We're not that sleepy little town off of I-35 anymore," Mayor Todd Ruge said. "We can't act like a small town anymore. We have to step up and have rules in place that are attractive to developers and investors to come here."

The city is planning a significant revision of its code, one that agrees with the new Buda and what some citizens have envisioned for its future.

The code applies to land—whether public or private, developed or undeveloped—within the city limits or its unincorporated area and dictates where high-density developments, such as apartments, can be built in the city.

Buda's 2030 Comprehensive Plan identifies six different "character districts," likely to be the sites for future development of land uses such as parks, industrial complexes, retail and office sites. Rewriting the UDC allows the city to enforce district-specific regulations.

After trying several years to place a revision of the city's code on the budget, former Councilman Ron Fletcher said the $150,000 line item finally made the budget in the waning months of his term last year.

In 2002 Fletcher sat on the Planning and Zoning Commission that acted as a steering committee in the city's original code-writing process.

Although it was not a common practice for cities the size of Buda to adopt a unified code, doing so in 2002 allowed the city to grow smoothly and without significant struggles, Planning Director Chance Sparks said.

"It was a very progressive move that I think saved a lot of headaches as time moved on," Sparks said.

What is the UDC?

A city's unified development code dictates the development that can occur on a piece of property. Unifying the rules into a single ordinance ensures each regulation is in step—and not conflicting—with the others, Sparks said.

At nearly 300 pages in length, the city of Buda's UDC is a comprehensive rulebook that details all things development-related, from how streets are designed to building guidelines for homes as well as penalties for breaking the rules.

The UDC rewriting process will focus not only on making the rules easier for the layman to understand, but also on clarifying the language so expectations are clearly defined, Sparks said.

As an example of the potential for confusion in the existing UDC, Ruge said the word "masonry" led to construction of a cinder block facade on Main Street when the code's intent was a different aesthetic, such as flagstone.

2030 Comprehensive plan

In 2011 the city adopted its master plan, dubbed the 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Since its adoption, the city has been chipping away at several other plans relating to transportation, parks and downtown.

Sparks said rewriting the UDC is the last key piece of policy the city needs to get started on the execution of its comprehensive plan.

The usual shelf life of a UDC is about 10–15 years before requiring an extensive revision, Sparks said. When considering the differences between Buda in 2002 and Buda today, "It's a very different animal," he said.

In 2002 Buda was a general-law city, run by a city administrator with a limited capacity for in-house staff. Many of the city staff positions, including the entire planning department and city manager's office, did not exist.

Before City Manager Kenneth Williams and the administrative staff were hired in the late 2000s, the city was largely reliant on third-party contractors to put together its codes and master plans.

An Austin consulting firm was hired in 2002 to put together Buda's unified development code, with the newly assembled Planning and Zoning Commission providing checks and balances during the process, Fletcher said.

Fletcher said the firm began including rules that members of the commission did not believe were in line with the city's comprehensive plan, the established community vision of Buda.

"We eventually told them, 'Don't call us, we'll call you,'" Fletcher said, adding that the commission finished writing the code before it was ultimately adopted.

One of the weaknesses of the 2002 UDC process, Fletcher said, is the code's neglect of redevelopment projects. It covers what a developer can do with a new piece of land but lacks regulations about redeveloping in older parts of the city, he said.

Despite its deficiencies, Sparks said the city's outdated code has not caused significant fallout from a singular event.

"It's kind of a death-by-a-thousand-cuts sort of thing where you have lots of small events that happen along the way that seem to clearly indicate that you have a systemic issue going on in your code," he said.

Next steps

In upcoming meetings, city staff will seek direction from the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council on whether and how to proceed with the UDC rewrite.

The money budgeted for the rewrite would go toward procuring a consulting firm if the council decides to move forward with the process, Sparks said.

Once hired, the firm can begin the writing process, and P&Z will again serve as a steering committee in the drafting phase, he said. This time around, however, the city's planning staff can mitigate any conflicts that may arise as part of the drafting process, and community involvement will be sought in the form of focus groups and public input workshops.

It can take six months to more than a year to put together the comprehensive set of rules, Sparks said. Once the process is complete and the document is ready for adoption, the foundation for implementing the community vision will have been laid.

Ruge said the city is standing on the precipice of a "tremendous opportunity."

"We are in a very unique position where we can really decide what we want to look like in the future," he said.

By JJ Velasquez
The Central Austin editor since 2016, JJ covers city government and other topics of community interest—when he's not editing the work of his prolific writers. He began his tenure at Community Impact Newspaper as the reporter for its San Marcos | Buda | Kyle edition covering local government and public education. The Laredo, Texas native is also a web developer whose mission is to make the internet a friendly place for finding objective and engaging news content.


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