San Marcos begins Land Development Code rewrite

Slated for late 2014 completion, code rewrite dictates density, environmental protections, roads

San Marcos City Council approved a comprehensive master plan in April, but the real work is just underway as the city begins rewriting its Land Development Code, the tool that will allow it to implement the comprehensive plan.

Matthew Lewis, director of planning and development services, said the city is well positioned to take advantage of Central Texas' booming growth, but the future of the city hinges on how the code is written.

"We've got to get this done right," Lewis said. "If we get a development code that doesn't work, this thing is not going to get implemented, and [San Marcos'] potential starts to fall off."

San Marcos' Land Development Code was last rewritten in 2004, although Lewis said piecemeal edits have been made regularly in the subsequent years. City officials hope to complete the rewrite by fall 2014.

The code guides nearly every aspect of development in the city. The roads, sidewalks, buildings, utilities and environmental buffers are all products of the Land Development Code.

Currently, the city's practice for determining placement of underground utility lines is on a first-come, first-served basis. This can create confusion and safety issues when lines need to be relocated or streets are undergoing repairs, Lewis said. The code will correct that by standardizing how utilities are laid throughout the city, he said.

In addition to utilities, the code controls density. The code currently encourages the kind of sprawling development that is not ideal for a city expected to add 33,000 people by 2035, Lewis said.

"If your codes are outdated and you've got very suburban-style codes as a one-size-fits-all for a city, that particularly does not work in San Marcos," Lewis said.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all code, Lewis said the city will code the individual areas identified within the city's comprehensive plan, also known as Vision San Marcos: A River Runs Through Us.

Those areas are Midtown, which includes the Springtown Shopping Center; Downtown near the Square; the East Village off McCarty Lane; the Medical District along Wonder World Drive east of I-35; the Triangle off Hwy. 80; the South End off Wonder World Drive east of I-35; STAR Park off Hunter Road; and the Blanco Vista and Paso Robles developments.

The key to each area will be context, Lewis said. Midtown and Downtown, which have been tapped within the comprehensive plan for "high-intensity," dense development, will have different roadway features and zoning designations than Paso Robles and Blanco Vista, two "low-intensity" developments.

Lewis said an example of bad context would be creating an urban environment near I-35.

"You're out of context," he said. "It's like wearing a tuxedo to a two-stepping party."

Downtown

Lewis points to the city's downtown and the SmartCode as what he hopes will come in the wake of the code rewrite.

The SmartCode governs all vertical development within the downtown district and was implemented in 2011. In 2010, investment in the district was about $2 million. In 2012, that number jumped to $23 million, Lewis said.

Scott Gregson owns properties along Hopkins and San Antonio streets in downtown San Marcos and said the area is ripe for redevelopment. Gregson said developers have embraced the SmartCode.

"The proof is in the pudding as to how the development community is reacting to it," Gregson said. "One is, we've had some significant investment from outside the city coming into our downtown."

A Philadelphia-based investment group purchased the former Hays County Justice Center, Hays County Records Building and a county annex building in 2012. A project to build a brewpub on South LBJ Drive also has potential to revitalize part of the district, Gregson said.

Gregson said he would like to see more residential options downtown. More "hungry mouths" living downtown would lead to more restaurant options, he said.

"I've always said I want people who are coming to our downtown, not just going through our downtown," Gregson said. "I want them to stop and stay and engage and see what's going on and feel that there's stuff to do rather than, 'I'm going from point A to point B, and downtown happens to be on the route.'"

Environmental

The code's environmental regulations were addressed at the Planning and Zoning Commission's regular meeting Nov. 12. New regulations relating to stormwater and drainage within the city were approved.

Laurie Moyer, director of engineering and capital improvement, said the city began working with a consultant in 2011 to review the code's effect on water quality, stormwater and other environmental concerns.

"That was for two reasons," Moyer said. "One, at the time there was a lot of new staff who were unfamiliar with what the code had in it, and two, there was concern about some inconsistencies."

The amendments made Nov. 12 will limit the amount of land developers can level when building their projects and create a stormwater technical manual that will help control water runoff at new developments.

Public involvement

Lewis said engaging with San Marcos residents is going to be the most crucial step during the process of rewriting the code, which he has dubbed Code SMTX.

During the creation of the comprehensive plan the city hosted a "design rodeo" that allowed residents to lay out their ideal San Marcos. The event utilized sketch artists, Lego blocks and more to allow the public to give input on the plan.

More recently, the city hosted SMTXTalks, a symposium that brought together urban planners with community stakeholders to hash out a plan for the city's future. Lewis said there are plans to host similar events in the future.

"[San Marcos] literally is about to have this dramatic shift in a positive way," Lewis said. "People are going to be thrilled about what's about to happen. It's this close. It's about to happen."