Building rules receive overhaul; New code eases headaches for developers

The city of Brownsville’s building codes and zoning regulations have long had a reputation as being difficult to navigate and even at times contradictory.

Last year city management with the blessing of city commissioners set out to tame that beast, signing a $450,000 contract with planning consultants Freese and Nichols Inc. in September. Chance Sparks, president of the American Planning Association Texas Chapter and planner with Freese and Nichols, led the overhaul.

Now just over a year later the city has a completely new Unified Development Code and zoning map, which is being rolled out over the next few months. The consultants will assist with that effort as well, Deputy City Manager Helen Ramirez said.

“We’re going to do a 90-day roll-out and implementation education for our developers and people that have permits in the system so it could be more of a smooth transition,” she said. “Normally when cities do a complete overhaul or rewrite of their UDC they do give some sort of time frame for the developer to get accustomed to the changes and to educate and to make it easier to implement, so that’s what we’re doing right now.”

During this period developers have the option of sticking with the previous code if it means getting their permits faster, though they’ll find the new code more flexible and streamlined, Ramirez said. What developers had to contend with before was a 30-year-old stack of regulatory overlay upon overlay upon overlay, which she compared to an onion’s many layers. The result was a set of rules, sometimes at odds with each other, that often were confusing for developers and planning department staff alike, Ramirez said.

With the rewrite, developers will have a single zoning designation to go by as opposed to having to consult multiple chapters of the code book, she said.

“Now with that designation you’re able to understand in a pretty simple sheet, OK, these are my allowable uses in this district,” Ramirez said. “It’s streamlined in the sense that it’s really customer friendly and user friendly.”

The Brownsville Fire Department is also in the process of amending its fire code to complement the new UDC and make it easier to redevelop historic buildings downtown and elsewhere in the city, she said.

“Some things were addressed in the Unified Development Code that no longer have to be addressed by the fire code,” Ramirez said.

The city also plans to implement an online system that allows customers to monitor the progress of permit applications and inspections in real time, she said. The overarching goal behind the code revamp was to reduce “pain points” for developers and the volume of complaints the city was getting, Ramirez said.

The effort likewise entailed restructuring the planning department with an emphasis on redevelopment to underscore the importance of downtown, she said, adding that the new rules make it easier to develop smaller lots downtown while also maintaining historical compatibility. Ramirez said a well crafted building and development code is a pillars of economic development and sustainable growth.

“The way to redevelop your historic downtown is through your development codes and your building codes,” she said. “If you don’t have those right it’s very difficult to be successful in anything.”

Ramirez credited the expertise of Freese and Nichols and embrace of the new thinking on the part of city staff as the reason the revamp was done so quickly, adding that the new UDC is subject to tweaking in the next few months as needed. She said the mayor and city commissioner were closely involved in the process, which reflects the city’s “strategic visioning” document adopted last year, and that the code and zoning overhaul was done with substantial input from the community as a whole in addition to the development community.

“This is not an off-the-shelf kind of code,” Ramirez said. “This is tailored for our needs. This is not something where you just copy a code from another city and plopped it on Brownsville. We are unique.”