Who should be notified when a zoning or other development change is proposed for a San Antonio neighborhood?
That question was at the heart of one of 193 proposed amendments to the city’s unified development code that have been wending their way through various boards and commissions for the past year, and were heard for the first time Thursday by a City Council committee.
The full council will vote in October on the raft of rule changes for land and property development, which will impact how the city grows.
On Thursday, the committee learned that of all proposed changes, city staff only recommended two be denied: one from the San Antonio Archdiocese that would allow transitional housing in residential areas; the other from the Government Hill Community Association, seeking to change the city’s neighborhood registration process.
Right now, residents who live within 200 feet of a proposed zoning or plan change are notified via mail of meetings where they can weigh in on the changes, as are nearby neighborhood associations — at least, those that are registered with the city.
Government Hill, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the city’s near-East Side, now has two neighborhood groups: the Government Hill Alliance, which has been the official neighborhood association for years and is registered as such with the city, and the newer Government Hill Community Association, which does not get city notifications.
The two groups have clashed on various developments in the neighborhood in recent years, including a zoning change that would have paved the way for a gas station to replace several houses.
Rose Hill, president of the alliance, said the amendment is an attempt to undermine the long-established neighborhood group.
But Marlene Hawkins, co-president of the newer community association, said residents have a right to receive communication from the city regarding development in their neighborhood.
“Many people over the years have been denied access to the neighborhood registry and therefore their civil liberties [and] equal access to information,” she said.
Their comments, and the testimony of several other Eastside residents, led Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) to agree with her colleagues that more council input is needed before finalizing the list of amendments the full council will vote on in October.
She noted that Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), whose district includes Government Hill, is not a member of the committee but should have the chance to weigh in before October’s final vote.
Other proposed amendments would affect accessory dwelling units, flood prevention, urban farms, light pollution, short-term rentals, historic preservation administration, the location of gas stations, tree preservation and building height limits.
Councilman John Courage (D9) noted that he has had the benefit of serving as an ex-officio member on the Planning Commission, which reviewed many of the amendments. Other council members haven’t had that front-row seat to the process, he said, acknowledging that they might need more time to familiarize themselves with the various amendments.
“It’s a lot,” Courage said. “But I would say there’s only probably two or three issues that … may deserve a little more consideration out of the whole 193.”
One of those will certainly be the amendment to make accessory dwelling units (ADUs) easier for homeowners to build on their property, which also drew many community members to Thursday’s meeting.
Developed by a subcommittee of the city’s Housing Commission and city staff, the amendment includes eliminating the rule that an ADU’s utilities must be connected to the primary structure, removing occupancy and bedroom limitations as well as loosening design requirements while allowing for larger units. They would be limited to backyards, and be capped at two stories. Only ADUs with floor areas larger than 800 square feet would be required to provide parking.
Changes to ADU policies were identified as a policy priority to promote affordable housing in the city’s 2018 housing policy framework.
The Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition has several concerns about the changes, including density, fire safety and process concerns — chief among them that the changes could benefit investors who purchase and rent out homes and ADUs.
“We don’t want them to propagate into investor duplexes,” said Bianca Maldonado, a member of the Tier 1 steering committee and resident of the Monticello Park neighborhood.
Currently, only homes occupied by property owners can have an ADU. While there is not a proposal to change that, the city does not proactively enforce that rule beyond the permitting and zoning processes, city officials have said.
“I’m still struggling on those issues,” said Councilman Mario Bravo (D1), who was the lone abstention from the vote to move the conversation to the full council. “While I do want people to build more ADUs and increase housing, I also think about adding impervious cover.”
The council committee’s review is just the latest step in a year-long process to update the city’s unified development code. Changes to the city’s development code can be approved by City Council at any time, but the city goes through a major overhaul every five years. This latest round was delayed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the last several months, various city committees and commissions reviewed 234 proposed amendments, which came from groups and individuals inside and out of the city. Via that process, dozens of amendments were withdrawn, and some were combined and refined with others. The rest were forwarded on to council.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA) originally offered nine amendments, but ultimately withdrew five of them — one of which would have granted public access to newly-built private parkland. The remaining amendments, which are recommended for approval by city staff, are aimed at improving stormwater detention and runoff as well as better defining low-impact development features and other key terms related to floodplains.
“At this point, I am gratified that there is some recognition within the codes of ecosystem services and how stormwater can impact those services,” said Debbie Reid, GEAA technical director. “Hopefully, there will be an opportunity in the future for more public input and greater collaboration to identify and address causes of increased flooding and floodplain/riparian degradation that appears to be caused by new development.”
A full list of amendments can be downloaded here.
Ultimately, City Council gets to decide how the final code will read. If approved in October, the changes would take effect in January.