Planning commission calls for neighborhood character studies, recommends Code SMTX changes

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San Marcos planning and zoning commissioners said Tuesday they want to allow residents a chance to weigh in on the character of their neighborhoods before parts of city’s new land-development code, Code SMTX, are applied.

Commissioners called for neighborhood character studies—described in the city’s comprehensive plan as a tool to “ensure that each neighborhood maintains its existing character and follows development and redevelopment patterns desired by the residents”—to be completed before City Council adopts the new Neighborhoods Districts that govern what can be built there.

Commissioner Jim Garber said he has had a problem with Neighborhood Districts zones since the Code SMTX process began.

“When the concept of neighborhood character studies was proposed, many people jumped on board,” he said. “As the comprehensive plan reads, the intent [of the character studies]was to read the DNA of the neighborhoods and build that into the code.”

Commissioner Mike Dillon agreed, saying he thought neighborhoods in San Marcos were “under attack.”

What are Neighborhood Districts?

Neighborhoods Districts are a type of zoning intended for infill and redevelopment in existing neighborhoods. This gives residents options to build—with government approval depending on the district—things like townhouses, small apartments, courtyard housing, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and attached houses.

There are four Neighborhood Districts proposed. They range for accommodating single-family detached houses to pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use corridors.

According to the draft code—released Oct. 13—Neighborhood Districts “should be applied to preserve and enhance the character of existing neighborhood areas while providing options for diverse and affordable housing or limited neighborhood-oriented commercial uses.”

Several residents opposed the Neighborhoods Districts, saying some of the proposed elements were not compatible with existing neighborhoods.

“The comprehensive plan kept saying, ‘Leave the neighborhoods alone,'” San Marcos resident Tom Wassenich said Tuesday, adding character studies should be performed before the new land-development code is adopted.

“I’m afraid [the Neighborhoods Districts]will irreversibly damage the existing neighborhoods that we have,” said resident Amy Meeks, also calling for character studies to be performed. “[The Neighborhoods Districts] really will open the door to our neighborhoods being altered in a way that will really change the character and fiber of what is already existing.”

Following a motion by Commissioner Travis Kelsey to remove Neighborhood Districts and use the zoning section of the former code until all character studies are completed, commissioners voted 6-2, with commissioners Shawn Dupont and Lee Porterfield voting against removing Neighborhood Districts and Kate McCarty absent.

City perspective

Abby Gilfillan, the city’s planning manager, said Neighborhood Districts were created to replace those zoning districts that—according to resident feedback—are not working very well in neighborhoods currently.

City staff argues residents from San Marcos neighborhoods gave their input over the past three years as planners put together the new code. They say neighborhood character studies should be done after approval of Code SMTX when the city can give residents options on what changes, if any, they would like to make to their neighborhoods to give developers a better idea of what can fit in with the neighborhood’s character.

“It’s very challenging to go into a neighborhood and say, ‘What would you like to see here?” aid Shannon Mattingly, the city’s planning director. “If you don’t have anything to show them, then you don’t really know what district you can create for them.”

The neighborhood character studies would be done in the following neighborhoods:

  • Heritage neighborhood
  • Northwest Hills neighborhood
  • Eastern neighborhood
  • Western neighborhood
  • Northern neighborhood
  • Willow Creek neighborhood

Gilfillan said the neighborhood character studies could take several years to complete.

“I anticipate there’s probably some [neighborhoods]that say, ‘We are perfectly fine the way they are; we don’t want anything done in this community,'” Mattingly said.

Some commissioners said waiting to adopt the Neighborhood Districts until the character studies were completed would hold city staff accountable and ensure that the studies are performed quickly.

Garber said the character studies would also provide some predictability for developers.

“They want to know: Are they wasting their time?” he said.

Under the new code, zoning changes would still have to go through the proper resident notifications, and public hearings would be held at the planning and zoning commission and City Council levels, with council giving final approval.

In addition, properties mapped under the current zoning will continue to be compliant under that zoning when the new code takes affect.

If you have a business or a home or any other structure and you want to add onto, or you want to tear it down and replace it, [or]build something else in its place that is of the same use, you can do that with the current standards you have right now,” Gilfillan said. “If you want to change the game, and you want to do something different than you have right now, you have to comply with the new zoning district.” 

Other changes proposed

Commissioners and residents spoke about how they approved of new environmental standards, including new water-quality standards and greater development buffers along the San Marcos River.

“I feel that we do have a great need for the environmental regulations in the new [land-development code],” San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Diane Wassenich said. 

Other changes proposed include less parking requirements in pedestrian-friendly areas, better transparency and application notification for residents and higher standards for code compliance.

For now, the recommendation to approve Code SMTX without the Neighborhood Districts inclusion goes to City Council for a public hearing and discussion on Dec. 19.

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Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges is the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covers San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France.
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