Austin Business Journal: Shot clock’ bill resets development review time

As Austin city leaders had their attention focused on the 3.5 percent tax cap that moved through the Texas Legislature, legislators were busy approving a bill that could have a serious impact on the city’s efforts to regulate development. The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, which supported the bill, calls it the “shot clock” bill, because it’s intended to speed up the development review process.
Andrew Linseisen, assistant director of the Development Services Department, told the Austin Monitor Thursday that he and other city officials are still studying the impacts of House Bill 3167, which will go into effect on Sept. 1.
While emphasizing that the department has improved considerably over the years, Linseisen said complying with the new regulations “will definitely be very challenging.”
HB 3167 requires all Texas cities and counties to respond to a subdivision plat application, or several other types of applications, within 30 days. In addition, staff will be required to respond to subsequent submittals within 15 days. If the city or county fails to do so, the plat or plan will be considered approved. Austin already has a standard that requires department reviewers to get things done more quickly than that, but they do not always meet the goal.
“Our standard review timelines are 20 days and our update is 10 days, so our standard is already in compliance,” Linseisen noted.
One problem reviewers will face is what to do when they discover a new problem they did not catch the first time around. For example, if the reviewer for a final plat or a re-subdivision discovers that the original plan did not take into account the flood plain, and the developer is forced to move lots around in a way that impacts an intersection, that could result in an unsafe intersection – yet the reviewer will not be able to require a change at that point.
According to an analysis from the House Research Organization, the bill applies to site development plans as well as preliminary plats, preliminary subdivision plans and subdivision construction plans as well as final plats.
Linseisen declined to comment on how the department would be responding to those changes, except to say that he expects to be bringing forth some code changes and has a working group studying the new law. The department raised  fees and added staff last October to try to deal with the quantity of permits being requested.
Linseisen pointed out that his department completes its plan reviews on time 95 percent of the time for commercial projects and 87 percent of the time for residential projects. Where they fall behind is in site and subdivision review, with the department only completing 72 percent of those within the 30 days allotted.
On the other hand, according to the city’s key success metrics page, Travis County only completes its work on site and subdivision permits on time in 16 percent of cases. Austin Energy also lags behind at 60 percent and the Planning and Zoning Department hits the mark just 55 percent of the time.
On April 2, Geoffrey Tahuahua of the Real Estate Council of Austin told the House Committee on Land & Resource Management that his organization had worked with the Development Services Department. One of the consistent areas of improvement developers were seeking related to the time lapse between submittal of applications and response from staff, he said.
“While we are extremely happy with the implementation of many of these process improvements, and the direction of Development Services here in Austin, there is still a lot of work ahead. Whether it’s a building permit, plat approval or site plan, every day that passes” is not only a loss in productivity, he said, but also a cost increase that ultimately gets passed down to the consumer.
Tahuahua said it was not unheard of in Austin for a site plan review to take well over six months and he urged the committee to vote for the bill.
When Linseisen got up to speak to the House committee, one of the members badgered him about being there representing the city of Austin and asked whether City Council had voted on the matter. He said they had not, and when that member pressed him further about why he was there, Linseisen responded that he had “drawn the short straw.”
Linseisen asked the committee to change the legislation so that if a reviewer finds a problem during a second review of a permit, the city can still require changes to the development. But that didn’t happen.
The bill passed the House on a vote of 119 to 18 with one present not voting, and the Senate on a vote of 27 to 3, with one present not voting.