In an effort to make the city more attractive to new businesses, Leander City Council has adopted a temporary rewrite of the city’s access-management policy, which was seen by some as restrictive to development.
Mayor Troy Hill said the citizens of the city want commercial growth.
“Leander is open for business and will work hard to provide a company with the ability to locate here and be wildly successful,” Hill said.
In November, Leander City Council voted to modify the city’s access-management regulations. Jurisdictions adopt access-management policies to control how drivers can enter and exit roadways.
“There are many studies that show the fewer [the] conflict points (i.e. driveways) along a road, the less dangerous the road will be for commuters,” City Council Member Jeff Seiler said. “The more driveways, the more opportunities for accidents.”
According to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Access Management Manual, data suggests that when the number of access points is doubled from 10 to 20 per mile of roadway, crash rates increase by 30 percent. Access-management techniques do not only include limiting access points; however, they can also include managing the spacing of turns, medians and intersections, according to documents from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Leander’s previous access-management policy, which was adopted in March 2017, stated that lots abutting an arterial street could not have an access point onto the arterial—roads such as US 183 or Crystal Falls Parkway, according to Leander interim Planning Director Robin Griffin. Instead land developers needed to provide drivers with access to a lower-class street or a backage road, which is a road running along an arterial street, according to Leander’s code of ordinances.
In the case a lower-class street could not be built, lots with at least 600 feet of frontage onto the arterial could have a driveway on the arterial, Griffin said.
The policy was created because the city’s 2015 comprehensive plan included a goal to provide access management within the city with the intent to reduce traffic accidents, Griffin said.
“I think one thing that I have learned is that our access-management policy can’t be a one-size-fits-all type of policy,” Seiler said. “... I think [the former policy] did meet its intent, but we should have paid closer attention to its repercussions in the development community.”
EFFECT ON DEVELOPMENT
Some developers said the policy was detrimental to building because it led to prohibitive costs and difficulty accessing properties.
“While I understand clearly the difficulties the city has had with [US] 183 … [with] some curb cuts and driveways as little as 10 feet apart, I believe that the ordinance is heavily cumbersome,” developer Bruce Nakfoor said at an Aug. 16 City Council meeting.
Nakfoor told Community Impact Newspaper that his property most affected by the policy was a 3.2-acre site on US 183 and Toll 183A where he could build retail space.
“The access road management ordinance is requiring me to put a road, a back road, through 1,100 feet of property at a cost of at least $200,000,” he said to council in August. “That type of cost weighs in the balance of whether you do or do not do a project.”
Documents from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute state business owners may also have concerns about access-management policies limiting customers’ ability to access the property, so agencies working to implement the policies should “work closely” with the business owners.
After hearing input from developers earlier this year, the council took steps to address the former policy Sept. 6 when it decided to issue requests for proposals for a transportation professional to work on a new access-management policy. The city accepted bids for a consultant for the project until Dec. 13, according to the city website.
Leander City Council Member Marci Cannon said she was concerned about the city’s access-management policy when council first adopted the 2017 ordinance, before she was on council.
“The developer must purchase enough land from his neighbor for the setback, sidewalk, landscaping and street trees of which he will also have to install,” Cannon said. “... The cost to acquire land, build a street, construct an 8- to 10-foot sidewalk and to plant street trees every 30 feet would run off any developer—and in fact it has.”
In October, Cannon suggested a temporary rewrite, which was approved by City Council in November. The rewrite takes the place of the former ordinance until the traffic consultant’s work is complete.
Under the new policy commercial and industrial developers may build entrances onto their property from an arterial roadway while adhering to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Access Management Manual’s standards for access-point spacing.
TxDOT’s manual determines how far access points on an arterial may be from one another based on the road’s speed limit, ranging from 200 feet apart on roads with speed limits up to 30 miles per hour to 425 feet apart on roads with speed limits of 50 miles per hour or faster, according to TxDOT documents.
“I applaud our planning and engineering departments for drafting a reasonable ordinance that supports new business coming to our city,” Cannon said. “... Until we have the traffic engineer’s study this sends a clear message to commercial developers that Leander has listened and wants to make it financially plausible to build here.”
The November ordinance also featured provisions to enable the owners of smaller tracts, which otherwise cannot comply to TxDOT’s standards, to possibly gain access onto arterial roads as well.
In such a case the new ordinance states the city’s director of planning and city engineer should determine where the access points onto the property should be located. The ordinance also provides an option for landowners who do not agree with the director’s and engineer’s decision to appeal to the Leander Planning and Zoning Commission, and then if the issue is still not resolved, to City Council.
Nakfoor said the new policy is helpful and allowed his project to move forward. The old policy cost him time and money—and set Leander back one to two years, he said.
Revising access-management standards is a “major step in the right direction,” Hill said.
“This single ordinance has been one of the greatest inhibitors to commercial growth in Leander,” he said. “It’s time to come up with better options that achieve good traffic flow with safety in mind and still be a good place for a business to locate here.”
City Council has taken other steps to facilitate commercial development recently.
City Council decided to implement an optional development-proposal review process Oct. 4 to allow developers to request a council review of their proposal before submitting applications to the city—and spending money in the process.
Council members voted during the same meeting to direct staff to create an ordinance amendment eliminating riparian corridor setbacks for commercial developments in an effort to increase buildable land developers may use in the city. Riparian corridors are typically creek corridors based on the creek’s drainage area, Griffin said.
The zoning commission voted against recommending this ordinance amendment with environmental concerns, and a workshop with council and the commission to discuss the topic is planned for Jan. 3.
Hill said the city currently uses tax abatements to incentivize growth. Leander also provides Old Town Incentive Program grants to businesses in the Old Town district to help pay for infrastructure or other investments to increase businesses’ property tax value, according to city documents.
The mayor said along with City Council and staff focused on bringing businesses to Leander, there are a number of factors that make the city attractive to business.
“Our demographics are amazing,” Hill said. “You can live here in great housing. Your kids will get an education in a first-rate school, and it’s a safe place with amazing people. I welcome any company looking for a new place to be a part of.”
Reporting contributed by Marisa Charpentier. Editor’s note: Leander City Council Member Jeff Seiler is related to an employee at Community Impact Newspaper’s Georgetown edition.