Austin officials are readying for the replacement of longstanding local parkland dedication practices—trade-offs of money or green space to pace the city park system's growth with new development—to comply with new state legislation approved this year.

What happened

House Bill 1526, authored by state Reps. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, and Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, updates parkland dedication in large Texas cities by adjusting the amount of land or fees that can be asked of developers.

Harris and Swanson represent rural and suburban legislative districts in eastern Texas that are home to cities with tens of thousands of residents, while HB 1526 affects only cities with populations greater than 800,000 including Austin. The new law's changes stem from the belief of some "interested parties" that civic parkland dedication is hampering new housing development, according to a state legislative analysis.

HB 1526 moved through the Capitol this spring and went into effect June 10. Austin must now adjust its parkland dedication to comply with the law before 2024, likely limiting how the city handles the program designed to offset park accessibility shortfalls around town.

The changes will come just over one year after City Council had moved to broaden the dedication process that has added dozens of acres of green space such as neighborhood pocket parks and trail enhancements over recent years.

Council last September ended up approving increased fees for developers to pay in place of land dedication, and for the first time also required commercial projects to be looped into the process—decisions that came with some worry about the potential for a legislative reaction.

Under HB 1526, fees will likely be significantly reduced while commercial projects will be exempted again.

Breaking it down

On Nov. 2, council is set to lay out different fee calculations based on where new projects are located, a mapping decision that lawmakers left up to city governments. Changes to Austin's parkland dedication ordinance will follow.

The newly imposed dedication calculations would apply:
  • Downtown, or the central business district, or CBD
  • In areas closely surrounding the urban core
  • Across the rest of the city
Austin is changing how it collects land or fees from developers to support new parkland. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Austin is changing how it collects land or fees from developers to support new parkland. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Parks staff said the proposed boundaries follow existing city planning areas and aren't based on any new strategy or financial assumptions.

Under the state-ordered structure, fees will be assessed based on property values in each new zone and the amount of housing in proposed developments—excluding income-restricted units—as well as a "density factor" accounting for each area's parkland needs. Park service calculations for all three zones will be several times smaller than the current factor of 9.4 acres per 1,000 residents established in the mid-2010s.

Randy Scott, a Parks and Recreation Department planner, said new dedication requirements will end up "much lower" and likely discourage trade-offs of actual land in favor of mostly using the fee option.

HB 1526 was also drafted to reflect "the diminishing expectation of parkland acres per dwelling unit in increasingly dense urban environments,” countering the city's current stance of encouraging more parkland near downtown.

“Your park level of service will go down quite significantly in those urban and CBD areas," said Robynne Heymans, a principal planner for the parks department. "That’s just based on this idea that the bill author presented that people expect less parkland as an area gets more dense, which is not how Austin has operated until now."

Put in perspective

Ahead of the scheduled public hearing, several officials on Oct. 31 questioned the impact on Austin and how much the city's efforts to offer green space near all of its residents will be hampered.

Referencing the Halloween holiday, council member Alison Alter led off her commentary by labeling HB 1526 as "truly scary" legislation forced on Austin by lawmakers from a different part of the state.

"Let’s make no mistake that what the legislators did at the Capitol is gut our ability to provide access to parkland in our city. They gutted it," Alter said. "Our parkland dedication fee process has worked since 1985. With the changes that we made, we were actually making a dent in providing access. This bill guts it."

More than $26 million was set aside for parkland dedication in fiscal year 2022-23, and more than $17 million is set aside in the current FY 2023-24, according to the parks department. Under the new system, Austin may only collect between about $921,000 and $1.5 million in FY 2024-25.

Approximately 54 acres of green space have been provided through developers' parkland dedication since FY 2021-22, according to the parks department. Without today's rules in place, that land would have instead cost taxpayers more than $65 million to add.

Looking ahead, the department conservatively projects it will be short the more than 100 acres or $48 million worth of parkland by 2030 needed to meet its access goals as much of Austin remains park-deficient.

On Oct. 31, Alter also expressed concern over the calculations required under the new fee structure. She said that dedication requirements could become so minimal that, in some cases, the city would end up needing to pay for parks rather than the other way around.

"This whole process is about providing access to parkland to the people who need parkland who are moving into the areas where we’re developing, and now we’re saying that they get to build their development, and if we want to have parkland, we have to pay them for that. It’s just twisted," she said.

Council members also considered whether they could expand the proposed "suburban" designation as that zone's dedication formula will likely result in greater fee collections. However, Mayor Kirk Watson cautioned against trying to work around the new law's process.

“This bill was in part based upon Austin, and there will be scrutiny about how Austin reacts to this bill in the next legislative session," he said. "While there may not be written restrictions, I think we ought to be able to defend whatever it is that we do.”

The outlook

Looking ahead, Alter requested an in-depth briefing from staff on the overall effects of the upcoming changes before council cements the new system in early December. She also said she's troubled by the result of builders lobbying to curb Austin's process.

“When you ask why we’re skeptical, some of us, of the developers and what they want, this is Exhibit A of that," she said. "Our community loves our parks, our community wants access to parks, we have a commitment and a strategy to do this. And this just devastates it.”