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With Austin In the AG’s Sights, Will the City Grandfather Its Building Permits?

There’s an old rule in Austin that the City Council will revisit Thursday.

A 1997 ordinance gives building permits an expiration date of between three and five years, regardless of whether the project has been completed or not. Oftentimes, builders need to re-apply for permits and adhere to any new construction rules. But, a recent opinion by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbotthas moved the ordinance front and center at City Hall because Abbott says the ordinance contradicts state code. 

For many years Greg Gurnsey had not given much thought to the city’s 1997 Project Duration Ordinance because construction in Austin was booming and unfinished projects were almost unheard of.

Gurnsey leads the city’s office that issues construction permits: the Planning and Development Review Department. He said when the economic crisis hit and construction slowed “there may have been projects put on hold,” and all of the sudden the ordinance became “more of a concern as of late than maybe previously when we had the boom in the mid 2000’s.”

During the last few weeks Gurney’s team has been advising council to tweak the Project Duration Ordinance and line it up more closely with state code. But council member Laura Morrison is not sold on the idea because it’s part of the city’s overall watershed protection plan. “I think it’s a very important decision,” said Morrison. She added, “a wrong step here could have very significant impacts for the city of Austin.”

At the moment, when any project’s permits expire, builders can ask council for special permission to finish under the code they originally worked on. Morrison said permissions are often granted. But there are times when building codes have changed so much that builders are asked to re-apply for permits.

Morrison worries that doing away with the words “project duration” will open a Pandora’s box because nobody knows how many projects could be, in her words, “resurrected.” She said there’s been talk about some projects “that have very significant impacts on the environment.” She said her other concern is that “[the city has] lots of new code that’s gone into place over the past 13-20 years that old projects may not comply with.” It’s “a scary thing,” Morrison said.

The city’s Planning and Development Review Department fears if the ordinance is not changed, the city could be vulnerable to lawsuits. But Morrison is not so worried about legal challenges. She said the AG’s opinion is just that, an opinion, it’s not a ruling issued by a court.

City Council decides Thursday on the course of action it will take with the city’s Project Duration Ordinance.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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