Published: 8:45 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011
Residents of unincorporated areas outside Austin’s city limits often call Travis County officials to complain about bars, dance halls, industrial operations and other places that create unwanted noise, light or odors.
But there’s little the county can do. Residents get what one county staffer called the “standard spiel” — an explanation of how the Legislature hasn’t given counties regulatory authority over land use.
Unlike cities — which can set rules on how late bars can stay open and can set limits on how close factories can be built to residences — Texas counties are mostly powerless when it comes to so-called incompatible uses.
“We can’t stop them,” Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said. “We don’t have the authority to impose restrictions or conditions that would reduce the adverse impact to nearby neighbors.”
It’s a chronic and frustrating issue for county representatives across the state. The Legislature in the past has been sparing with the land uses counties can control. This session, the county will continue to strongly support bills pushing for more land-use authority. Similar efforts have failed in years past, but the issue has gained more traction than it has historically, Biscoe said.
Lawmakers have filed several bills that would bolster counties’ land-use authority, including one by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez , D-Austin , to authorize some counties to set and negotiate a buffer zone between industrial areas and neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, child care or elder care facilities, and churches, among other land uses.
Also arguing for more county control is a report by the House Committee on County Affairs , which recommends that the Legislature “consider adopting limited and reasonable measures to protect against incompatible land uses in high growth areas outside of city jurisdiction.”
“It’s hard to say,” Rodriguez said, whether land-use authority has a better chance of succeeding this time around. The budget shortfall shouldn’t affect his buffer-zone bill, because it doesn’t call for more state dollars, but there are many new members in the Legislature, he noted.
“As the state’s population becomes more urban and suburban, this type of legislation is becoming more necessary,” Rodriguez said. “As time goes on, this type of legislation has more momentum.”
Rodriguez’s measure follows a contentious debate last year over a 2,000-acre sand-and-gravel mining operation east of Austin.
Many nearby residents opposed Texas Industries Inc. ‘s project, but Biscoe and Commissioner Margaret Gómez noted at the time the county’s lack of authority on land use and zoning issues. TXI ‘s permit applications met all county requirements, and commissioners narrowly approved the permits.
The county does have authority over solid waste management and disposal, sexually oriented businesses and junkyards, said Tom Nuckols of the Travis County Attorney’s Office .
Nuckols oversees two attorneys in the office’s new land-use section. “But then there’s a whole lot of other stuff that falls between the cracks,” he said.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s population growth is taking place outside of cities, said Donald Lee, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties’ executive director . “The state is booming in unincorporated areas.”
Unincorporated areas of Travis County, for example, grew by about 45 percent from 2000 to 2009, county officials said. About 181,000 residents lived in such areas in 2009.
The issue goes beyond the desire to protect residents from nearby incompatible land uses. With regulatory controls, counties would be better able to plan for growth and infrastructure needs.
Lee called the county land-use question “one of the most fundamental issues facing the state of Texas.”
The Texas Conference of Urban Counties, the Texas Association of Counties , and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas have worked on these issues, and Travis, Williamson, Hays, Comal and Harris counties also have been active, among dozens of other counties across the state, Lee said.
Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said those who live in unincorporated areas “expect the county to limit or prohibit these heavy 18-wheelers (on) their roadways and cement plants from locating near their neighborhood. But we’re only granted the authority that the Legislature gives us.”
“Our hands have been tied, and it’s been difficult for our citizens to understand that we’re limited,” Ingalsbe said. “It’s been very frustrating because we see and they see the damage that has occurred, the damage to our roadways or the devaluation of their properties.”
Donna Eccleston , commissioner of Comal County, said “We have urban problems with rural tools, and it’s a difficulty.”