City leaders have said for years that they want to repopulate the inner city and rein in the costs of running pipes and streets to “sprawl” development on the edges of town.
Now comes a proposed new comprehensive plan with strong measures aimed at doing just that, and developers are nervous.
Waco City Council on Tuesday will take its first look at the 25-year “City Plan” that will guide decisions on everything from economic development to environment to infrastructure and land use.
The centerpiece is the “growth management” section favoring close-in growth and making outer-ring growth pay for itself through new development fees.
The council will meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Waco Convention Center’s Bosque Theatre with the City Plan Commission, which drafted the plan with city staff.
Once adopted in November, the plan won’t have the force of law but will guide decisions on zoning, budgeting and infrastructure. The document, which will replace the 2000 Comprehensive Plan, emphasizes growth that is financially and environmentally sustainable over several decades.
“The underlying theme is sustainability,” said Bill Falco, a former city planning director who is overseeing the comprehensive plan process. “I think it’s apparent that the current way of doing things is not sustainable and we need to evaluate some new measures. Obviously it’s not going to happen all at one time, but we need to move in that direction.”
Developers are watching the discussion closely, said Kay Vinzant, executive director of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, who has been attending Plan Commission discussions of the plan.
“I can only tell you there are huge concerns among people who are going to come in and spend their money developing,” she said. “If you’re going to continue to have growth in Waco, you’ve got to know your costs. We’re not unhappy. We just don’t have enough information.”
The first draft of the plan was released online Friday afternoon on the city’s website, www.waco-texas.com.
The growth management section is based on the idea that the city can’t afford the status quo for providing water, sewer and street service to spread-out areas, city planning director Clint Peters said. He noted that the city already is starting on a quarter-billion- dollar plan to upgrade and extend utilities to meet current needs.
Now the comprehensive plan is projecting that the city will add 40,000 people by 2040, with another 40,000 moving into the suburbs.
“We’re looking at, how do we take care of existing infrastructure and accommodate infill and still have growth in areas with no infrastructure?” he said.
As an example of the dilemma, he mentioned the Park Meadows subdivision, which is now being built on the southwest edge of Waco. D.R. Horton is planning to build 1,500 homes there on 300 acres, creating huge new demands on that area’s modest utility network, as well as on Ritchie Road, which was built to rural standards.
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the current system forces existing taxpayers and utility customers to subsidize the cost of serving subdivisions like Park Meadows.
“Is it fair to continue to raise property taxes to do that, or does it need to be borne by people who move into those new subdivisions?” he said.
The plan envisions creating more compact development by encouraging density close to the urban core and discouraging density on the edges.
It proposes a revised land-use map that would increase lot sizes in the outer reaches of Waco and its extraterritorial jurisdiction, including some areas that have experienced rapid growth. A new land use category, “rural residential,” would mandate larger lot sizes in edge areas, such as the West Highway 84 corridor, the Ritchie Road area and China Spring.
Those areas are currently dominated by R-1B zoning, which allows densities of about seven units per acre. The plan intentionally doesn’t specify what the maximum density would be in the “rural residential” areas, but the Plan Commission has discussed lot minimums of an acre or more.
But, developers would be able to develop more densely in those areas if they set aside open space and “clustered” smaller lots together.
Meanwhile, the plan suggests possible new development fees that could be placed on new development to help offset the cost of extending utilities to greenfield developments.
Those could include one or more of the following:
• Increasing the utility tap fees on new houses to reflect the city’s investment in “water supply, treatment, and distribution required to serve the development.”
• Adopting impact fees on each new home to help pay for the city’s offsite investment in roads, water and sewer required by the development.
• Adopting a citywide stormwater management fee that all property owners would pay on a monthly basis to help pay for improvements in drainage.
• Requiring developers to set aside parkland or paying into a parkland expansion fund.
• Some of those fees could be waived for inner-city development.
Vinzant, the builder’s association director, said the city should be wary of adopting new fees on development. She argued that new growth helps the city’s tax base, and impact fees could stymie growth or lead developers to choose areas in suburbs such as Lorena, Hewitt, Robinson or Woodway.
And she said that while there’s some growing interest in urban living, many customers still want a more suburban environment.
“People are going to build where people want to live,” she said.
Rethinking the model
But Plan Commission chairman Jose Villanueva said Waco needs to rethink its whole development model.
“We’re subsidizing people building brand-new expensive houses out in the ETJ, and that’s a regressive way of distributing the wealth of the city,” he said.
“We’re trying to rein some of that in. If we have people who want to build McMansions out there, they need to pay for it.”
Villanueva lives on North 14th Street in the core of the city, and he thinks many others would choose to live closer in if they had a better choice of housing stock.
“I think what’s happening now is that are a lot of people interested in living in the city, including seniors who don’t have kids and people fresh out of college. We’re thinking the trend is that if you have adequate housing in the core of the city it will be filled up.”
The draft of the plan shows that the center of the city lost population between 2000 and 2010, while the city population overall grew by 11,079 people. But in the last five years, the areas around downtown have seen new urban-style construction, mostly lofts, cottages and apartments.
Work has started on an 11-lot “pocket neighborhood” off Carroll Drive called “The Cloister at Cameron Park,” which includes small lots and plenty of green space.
And around the corner on Adeline Drive, a former golf pro is building a large home, planning to move in from his longtime rural home in Crawford.
Ray Lamb, 56, said he looks forward to having the trails of Cameron Park at his doorstep, and being close to Baylor, where he teaches mountain biking. He also likes having better utilities and internet service, as well as stores and health care nearby. He said sees a future in more people moving into the city.
“I don’t think I’ll ever want to move back to the country,” he said. “It’s so nice to be two-and-a-half miles from the office and to be close to the river and downtown. People are starting to migrate to the park.”