Residents are keeping a close eye on Code SMTX as it heads to council

The final draft of Code SMTX heads to San Marcos City Council on Tuesday.

The final draft of Code SMTX heads to San Marcos City Council on Tuesday.

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A New Process for Building
In the coming weeks San Marcos City Council will have to decide how it wants to reshape the way the city is organized.

That will come in the form of a new land-development code, recommended by the city’s comprehensive plan to be revamped.

For some Code SMTX protects neighborhoods and creates stronger requirements for what can be built within the city, and for others it elicits a fear that their neighborhoods are under attack.

“Protecting our existing neighborhoods was an extremely important element to many people across the city,” planning and zoning commission Chairman Jim Garber said in November.

The majority of commissioners and several residents say a section of new residential zoning districts, called neighborhood districts, threaten the character of the neighborhoods and give developers options to change the look and feel of neighborhoods.

Commissioners called for neighborhood character studies to be completed before neighborhood districts are applied in the new code.

“When the concept of neighborhood character studies was proposed, many people jumped on board. As the comprehensive plan reads, [the] intent [of the comprehensive plan] was to read the DNA of neighborhoods [and] build that into the code to make sure that the right things went in the right places. To me that sounded like an excellent idea. Unfortunately, those didn’t get completed,” Garber said

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,” according to Code SMTX.

NEIGHBORHOOD DISTRICTS

San Marcos resident Maxfield Baker, who said he has followed the Code SMTX development process over the past three years, said commissioners presented a good argument against neighborhood districts, but choosing to adopt neighborhood districts rather than continue with the current code was the lesser of two evils.

“If we fall back on the old zoning, that doesn’t serve the community any better than the neighborhood districts do,” he said.

Removing the neighborhood districts would mean resorting back to a handful of current residential zoning districts that residents have told San Marcos staff in various workshops over the past three years do not work, according to Planning Manager Abby Gillfillan.

According to Planning Director Shannon Mattingly, the neighborhood character studies should be performed once the new land development code is adopted. Code SMTX will offer tools, or options, for how residents want their neighborhoods to look, she said.

“If you don’t have anything to show them, then you don’t really know what district you can create for them,” she said at the November planning commission meeting.

Still, some residents say the neighborhood character studies are essential to ensuring the zoning districts are compatible with the neighborhoods.

“It doesn’t seem like it would be logical to create a neighborhood district when you haven’t even analyzed what the neighborhoods want and what they think the character of their neighborhoods is,” resident Tom Wassenich said.

WHAT'S CHANGING

If San Marcos City Council approves Code SMTX as is, those applying for zoning changes will have more hoops to jump through.

Under the current zoning change process, residents within 200 feet of the property must be notified of a zoning change application submitted to the city.

The proposed code requires notification of a submitted zoning application to residents within 400 feet of the property. It also expands the amount of time between when property owners get notified of a zoning change and the planning commission meeting is held from 11 days to 17 days.

John David Carson, a developer who was part of the Code SMTX think tank in the code’s beginning stages, said the current code makes it easy for developers to build “the fuelers of placeless sprawl you see throughout the country.”

“We could quickly go the way of Round Rock and just become this sprawling, chained mess, and the [current land-development code] enables those kinds of things,” he said.

Carson noted the new code also eliminates planned development districts, or PDDs, which allow developers to build on larger tracts of land and have uses, regulations and other requirements that vary from the provisions of other zoning districts.

PDDs in San Marcos include the Trace and Whisper developments as well as the Lindsey Hill project that failed to gain planning and zoning commission approval in 2016 and the new Halcyon San Marcos retirement care facility approved by council in December.

“If you’re using a lot of PDDs, it’s a sign your code is broken,” Carson said.

The new code replaces PDDs with planning area districts, intended for larger, low- to medium-intensity areas or in employment areas where residential uses are incorporated.

PARKING STANDARDS

Under the new code, minimum parking standards are also reduced downtown and in other intensity zones where walkability is most important.

Maximum parking requirements for larger-scale surface parking lots have been included, and parking reductions for certain uses like senior and affordable housing as well as private car-share programs has been included.

Still, some say parking requirements should be eliminated or reduced in other parts of town.

“There are people in town that don’t believe in the current planning standards or trends for parking management,” said Sarah Simpson, co-founder of architecture firm Color Space. “They are always going to ask for more and more parking. On the other hand, there’s tons of research out there that supports reducing parking in mixed-use districts.”

The city’s comprehensive plan calls for parking reductions for mixed-use developments near transit or employment centers as well as reducing parking issues caused near the Texas State University campus and in dense housing areas.

Matt Akins, who considers himself a cycling and pedestrian advocate, called some of the current parking requirements antiquated and said the focus should be taken away from cars.

“All [parking] does is encourage more cars downtown,” he said. “I think high-density things encourage [walkability] by themselves.”

ENVIRONMENTAL REQUIREMENTS

Other changes proposed in the new code include new environmental regulations that address water-quality standards  and stormwater management.

The new code calls for developers to remove between 80 and 89 percent of total suspended solids, or pollutants, in the water, something consultant Thomas Rhodes said could slow down development of residential subdivisions because of the high cost associated with the water-quality standards.

“My biggest fear is [the city does not] have an actual grasp on what the financial impacts will be on the development,” he said. “All of that gets passed onto the end user at the end of the day.”

Carson agrees, saying he would have preferred a lower standard with incentives to go beyond the requirements.

“Those new standards are going to be really difficult to reconcile around [the city’s] goals of affordability, around their goals of place,” he said.

Diane Wassenich, executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation, welcomed the new standards.

“I don’t want to see more built under the old regulations,” she said in November.

COUNCIL TO WEIGH IN

On Dec. 19 all eyes will be on San Marcos City Council as it holds its first public hearing and discussion on the final Code SMTX draft.

Council will be asked to consider the planning and zoning commission’s recommendation on the code.

Some residents will be watching to see if neighborhoods remain protected.

“If we are to consider truly protecting the integrity of our town and the culture we historically have created, then [we need] a development moratorium, which protects and enforces requirements to complement the needs and will of the community,” said Carina Boston Pinales, owner of Splash Coworking.




6 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CODE SMTX

  1. San Marcos’ proposed new land-development code  aims to reflect the goals and vision of the comprehensive plan adopted in 2013.

  2. Thirty-four small-group meetings, 24 open houses/workshops, 40 online newsletters, 2,446 comments and 30 think tank meetings were held, received or sent throughout the process.

  3. The new code includes four classifications of zoning districts: conventional residential, neighborhood, character and special.

  4. Water-quality and buffer zone standards have been added and expanded.

  5. The current zoning map remains the same after the adoption of Code SMTX, meaning existing structures keep their current zoning and standards.

  6. Fifteen building types have been established for the city’s 17 zoning districts.






WHAT'S NEXT FOR CODE SMTX

Dec. 19, 6 p.m.
City Council discussion and public hearing

Jan. 16, 6 p.m.
City Council public hearing and action on first reading

Feb. 6, 5:30 p.m.
City Council action on final reading
By Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered 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. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.


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