San Antonio is taking the next step in a year-long process to update its rules surrounding development, which could have long-term impacts on how the city grows.
On Wednesday, the city’s Planning Commission will review dozens of proposed amendments to the city’s unified development code, which were submitted by residents, advocacy groups and other organizations — some of whom are concerned the process lacks transparency.
The changes aim to advance various goals, including enhanced flood prevention and water quality, allowing for more urban farms, reducing light pollution and allowing transitional housing in residential areas.
Many proposed amendments require simple edits or clarification to the city’s development code and so don’t require review or approval by the commission. Amendments proposed by city departments or other municipal commissions are also exempt from that preliminary review by the Planning Commission.
Substantial amendments from outside the city must first be sponsored by the commission — which means they could effectively die before they reach City Council.
That doesn’t sit well with some residents.
“Having the Planning Commission serve as the gatekeeper for these amendments hinders any public or transparent process,” Tony Garcia, a steering committee member for the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, said in a press release. The neighborhood advocacy group submitted 13 amendments, which have to do with increased neighborhood engagement, short term rentals and height limits for certain residential areas.
“These amendments deserve the same consideration as those amendments submitted by city staff,” Garcia stated.
Yet while city staff amendments get to skip the preliminary review by Planning Commission, all substantial amendments ultimately go through an in-depth review, according to city policy. The external amendments get the extra layer of review to ensure they don’t violate existing policies, a city spokeswoman said.
The last time the city updated its development code, in 2015, it received almost 300 proposed amendments. Nearly 40% were submitted by groups outside the city, and half of those were approved. Of those recommended by city staff, 80% were approved.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance submitted nine amendments this round, including those aimed at limiting development in floodplains, improving drainage and increasing parkland.
San Antonio City Council just voted to advance a bond package with a record $170 million for drainage projects, said Debbie Reid, technical director for the alliance.
“It became obvious during the bond committee meetings that there are numerous flooding and drainage issues in neighborhoods across our city,” she said, “and only a tiny fraction of them will be addressed by bond funding. It’s time to review our stormwater and floodplain protection rules in a transparent, public forum.”
Yet the alliance also has concerns about the process.
“I wonder how the Planning Commission will fairly consider public comments and discuss the merits of 40 amendments during a single meeting,” Executive Director Annalisa Peace stated.
The nine-member Planning Commission, appointed by City Council, will decide which amendments to forward to its technical advisory committee for in-depth review. From there, they could be reviewed by other relevant boards or commissions such as the Zoning Commission or the Board of Adjustment, which oversees code exceptions and the appeal process.
The city usually updates its unified development code every five years, but the process was stalled by the pandemic in 2020. Between Oct. 1, 2021 and Feb. 1, more than 230 proposed amendments were submitted.
Most of those were either minor amendments or proposed by city departments, leaving 40 to be discussed Wednesday.
City Council will ultimately have the final say on all code changes in October. If approved, the changes would take effect in November.
Also in October, council is slated to approve new building and fire codes. Every three years, the International Code Council Codes are updated and the city updates its local standards to ensure the most current international, national and industry safety codes are being used.