By SHELLY WILKISON
A year has passed since the City Council adopted multiple changes to the Unified Development Code, but an advisory committee is reopening discussions suggesting city staff did not present the committee’s recommendations in their entirety to Council.
The UDC is the set of rules and standards that guide development in the city and its extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ). The Code addresses such things as site development and design standards, the dedication of parkland, the protection of trees, parking lot requirements and signs. Also addressed are standards for the design of subdivisions, including construction, roads, lighting and fire protection, as well as the application and permitting process.
In 2016, the Advisory Committee, which is comprised of members of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission and others appointed by the City Council, met regularly to make changes to the Code that committee members agreed better reflected the needs of the community as it continues to grow. The original UDC, which mirrored rules in place in Round Rock, was adopted by an early city council and intended to be a starting place for a newly-incorporated Liberty Hill. In the years since, local officials agreed that the document needed to be changed to better reflect Liberty Hill as opposed to Round Rock.
The deliberations last year, which involved city staff, resulted in a number of changes that the Advisory Committee voted to recommend to Council for adoption. However, the Committee now believes those recommendations were not presented by staff in their entirety to elected officials.
“The bottom line is that we did a lot of work, and I thought we were all very happy with the work we did. I was surprised, or maybe I wasn’t surprised, when it wasn’t adopted as we recommended,” said Wes Griffin, a member of the Planning & Zoning Commission who serves on the advisory committee.
Advisory Committee Chair Jon Branigan, who became a member of the City Council in May after running unopposed for the seat previously held by his mother, said the changes to the UDC adopted by Council last year were not those recommended by the committee.
“There’s some confusion in the City and some comments that the adopted UDC was based on our recommendations, and that is not the case,” Branigan said.
He referred to a document that showed language the committee had recommended be struck or added to the UDC compared to recommendations by staff. He said the changes ultimately adopted by Council last June were not completely in line with the committee recommendations. He said in many cases, if staff disagreed with the committee, the Council opted to side with staff.
Branigan, a real estate agent and developer, added that the changes adopted by Council had never been uploaded to the website that contains all city ordinances.
“These items have been adopted by the City, but the UDC has never been rewritten. There’s not a clear copy for anybody to see,” he said. “If you go to the city website, it’s the old UDC.”
Before language can be uploaded to the website, it must first be adopted by Council in the form of an ordinance. While Council approved changes to the UDC last summer, an ordinance has never been finally approved because the question of least vs. most restrictive was never resolved between the committee and staff.
Meeting for the first time Tuesday since the Council adopted changes to the UDC on June 27, 2016, members stressed their continued interest in making the UDC as “least restrictive” as possible — a plan they believe would facilitate increased residential and commercial development in Liberty Hill by relaxing many requirements.
While they agreed the code should be least restrictive, there was still some question regarding the interpretation and how it interacted with county rules and state law.
Although no substantive action was taken Tuesday, Branigan proposed that committee members review the comparative document prior to the next meeting to see if recommendations not agreed to by staff should be brought forward again.
The committee agreed that city staff should not be present for future meetings “until we’re (the advisory committee) on the same page,” said Jack Garner.
The next committee meeting is set for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 5, at a place to be determined. Planning & Zoning Chair Clyde Davis suggested the committee could meet at his office at REMAX Town & Country if city space is not available.
“If it’s just the seven of us, we could meet at our office,” he offered.
“I think we need to meet just us. We don’t need to meet with the staff because they’re just going to change everything like they did before,” said Wendell McLeod, a member of the committee who also serves on the City Council.
“We had staff in our meetings, at every meeting, so they kind of blind-sighted us,” Davis added.
It is uncommon for city committees to meet without staff in attendance. Branigan told The Independent after the meeting that he couldn’t recall if he directed staff not to attend Tuesday.
The committee meeting was considered an open meeting as defined by state law, although the notice did not appear on the City website until three hours prior to the start time.
Tuesday’s meeting was attended by committee members Branigan, Garner, McLeod, Griffin, Davis, Cheryl New, and Lance Dean. Dean is a committee member, but is now a city employee hired by the Economic Development Corp. as its executive director in the spring. Member Chris Pezold was not present. Mayor Connie Fuller attended the meeting, but did not participate.
“The intention is not to rehash all of this tonight, but to let you know where we stand,” Branigan told the committee. “When I got on the council, my first objective was to get this resolved, get it written and get it completely, officially adopted so we can move forward with the UDC. The Council has given direction that we need to meet as a committee and go through this. I decided that I wanted to meet with you as a group before we have city staff here.”
For clarification, Dean asked whether all of the sections of the UDC would be reconsidered — even those where there was no disagreement between advisory committee and city staff recommendations.
“As we go through it, if we see something we feel like we missed the first time, we need to bring it up,” Davis responded.
Branigan added that Senior Planner Sally McFeron told him that she would also like to suggest some changes in the UDC if it was going to be reviewed again.
“Whatever we did before, I vote that we take it back to them (Council) and ask them to adopt it,” said Griffin. “If we need to make modifications to go toward least restrictive because we’re trying to be the opportunity of freedom in this community, we can do that.”
Branigan told The Independent following the meeting that if staff doesn’t agree this time with the committee recommendations, he anticipates taking them to Council directly and allowing them to make the final judgement.