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Development ordinance draws critics

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By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

During a lengthy public hearing last week, the Caldwell County Commissioners’ Court heard concerns from nearly 30 citizens regarding a bulky – and to some, oppressive – new ordinance drafted to address the problem of illegal subdivisions and plan for rural development in Caldwell County.

The ordinance, expected to come to the Court f

or a vote before the end of this calendar year, is intended to allow the county to “get out ahead of development,” and put protections in place allowing Caldwell County to manage growth and put the burden of infrastructure on developers, rather than taxpayers, according to County Judge Ronnie Duesterheft.

Some, however, view the ordinance as an unnecessary and overbroad document that will ultimately remove the private property rights of citizens.

Kathy Sellers suggested the ordinance “kills the American dream,” expressing concern that ordinance will prevent ranchers from selling off small parcels of land to would-be homeowners that cannot afford to purchase more than an acre or two of land on which to situate their homestead.

“A rancher might need to sell some land now, and then some later,” she said. “And [these rules] make that rancher a ‘developer,’” she said. “What rancher is going to want to spend the money to provide ingress and egress [to the tracts they sell off]?”

According to consultant Tracy Sellers with Loomis Partners, Inc., said the intent of the ordinance is not to make such transactions difficult, citing allowances for “short form plats” which require standard filing fees, but not necessarily infrastructure development, which is required to be put in place by larger developments.

Under state law, a county cannot impose impact fees, and the current subdivision regulations offer no remedy for the county if a developer subdivides a tract of land but does not provide suitable roadways and access to the property. The proposed ordinance addresses that issue, for instance, by requiring a two-year performance bond as security against “defects in materials, workmanship (including utility backfills), or design inadequacies, or damages, which may be discovered within the two-year performance period.”

Additionally, developers are required to provide “fiscal security” in the form of a surety bond, for subdivision requirements, to ensure that the infrastructure required to support the subdivision will be constructed. In the alternative, a developer may choose to construct the improvements and provide the performance bond for repairs.

This method, Commissioners say, will take the burden of construction and maintenance of roads in subdivisions off the county, and therefore off the backs of the taxpayers.

On a related note, Martha Becker asked the Court to include provisions in the ordinance regarding traffic on arterial roadways. Her concern, she said, is that the large developments projected as a result of State Highway 130 will increase congestion on Highway 142 and Highway 80 and eventually require additional maintenance.

Duesterheft said those roadways are not under county control, and those maintenance issues would be left to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Unfortunately, he said, TxDOT is often reactive, rather than proactive, regarding issues of maintenance and construction. He said the Commissioners would continue to work with the State, however, to see that the County’s transportation needs are addressed.

Another provision which fell under heavy fire is a “Residential Development Permit” requirement, which requires a county-issued permit for new residential construction, installation of a manufactured home, additions to existing structures which result in an increase in the number of bedrooms or bathrooms, and reconstruction or rehabilitation of a flood- or fire-damaged residence that exceeds 30 percent of the pre-damage value of the structure.

County resident Grant Rostig has asserted on a number of occasions that the provision hampers private property rights, and has asked the section requiring the permit to be stricken from the document entirely.

While the Court gave no indication the provision would be removed from the ordinance, Duesterheft offered assurances that the permitting process was not intended to prevent property owners from making improvements, but rather to ensure those improvements are safe.

“If you want to build a chicken coop, a carport or dig a tank on your property, we don’t care,” he said. “But construction that’s going to impact the septic, you’ll need a permit for.”

Duesterheft went on to explain that the process was designed to make sure that construction does not interfere with setbacks, rights-of-way, or property lines, but would be otherwise unregulated. The County, he said, has no authority to impose building codes.

Rostig countered that such requirements are already addressed in other ordinances, including the county’s septic rules, and were therefore unnecessary.

Many questions arose regarding the enforcement of the proposed ordinance, specifically with regard to staffing and addressing illegal subdivisions already in existence. Citizens also voiced concern that many existing issues could have been prevented if a system of communication was in place between the water supply corporations, electric providers, the County Clerk’s Office and the Caldwell County Appraisal District.

“The place to head [illegal subdivision] off is at the Clerk’s Office,” said Linda Hinkle. “Teach them to read [the plats], because by the time it gets to the appraisal district, it’s already done. If we don’t let them record [the plats], they’ll come [to the Commissioners’ Court for approval].”

Assistant District Attorney Ron Heggemeier said as a function of introducing the ordinance, he has been working with a variety of entities and departments, including septic inspector Kasi Miles, the county clerk’s office, the appraisal district, Bluebonnet Electric and the water supplies to ensure that going forward, communications are more open. This communication, he said, will allow for each entity to have a more complete picture of developments and construction, which will help avoid unsafe and illegal divisions of property.

Grady Keenan, for instance, pointed to situations in the county where property owners do not install septic systems, instead opting to drain raw sewage on the ground, and rely on extension cords to power their buildings.

Those issues, Heggemeier said, could be reported either by citizens or law enforcement, so they could be addressed for compliance.

Lockhart resident Dave Moore, working in concert with Hinkle and several other land survey professionals, prepared an extensive review of the technical aspects of the ordinance, focusing on how plats are prepared, printed and filed.

His contributions, which ranged from corrections of typographical errors to advice on reproduction requirements, spurred conversation about cooperative efforts between clerks, developers and the appraisal district to ensure correct and legible filings.

In addition, it drew a question from Lockhart resident Donna Voetee, who challenged the Court about their decision to hire an outside contractor from out of town, at the expense of more than $50,000 to draft the proposed ordinance, “when you have all this expertise right here.”

Heggemeier said Loomis Partners was chosen for the project as a result of a negotiation process, wherein the County invites several organizations to respond if they are interested in entering a contract for professional services. Although they contacted several different entities, some declined the project. Loomis Partners was the first to negotiate terms acceptable to the County.

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