East Texas lawmaker files bill to loosen building height restrictions in big cities

‘It’s really hard to see this bill as anything other than targeting Austin,’ says Jonathan Lee of the Austin Monitor.

By Sean SaldanaJanuary 27, 2023 2:08 pm,

Earlier this week, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, filed a bill in the Legislature that would relax regulations around building height restrictions in some of Texas’ biggest cities.

In urban planning, restrictions around how high you can build are fairly common, usually related to concerns about the environment, neighborhood character and air traffic. All around the Texas Capitol, many buildings are limited to a height of 200 feet, in part so as not to distract from its grandiose architecture and cultural impact.

At the same time, though, height restrictions are frequently a point of frustration for developers and for affordable housing advocates.

Jonathan Lee, a reporter and producer with the Austin Monitor who reports on government and land use, joined the Texas Standard to talk about this bill and what it would mean for urban planning in Texas.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: Height restrictions are fairly easy for most people to wrap their heads around, but give us an example of how these regulations might actually play out in practice.

Jonathan Lee: Sure, so the regulation you mentioned at the Capitol is a great example. But there’s another regulation that has been kind of at the center of debates – and that regulation is called “compatibility.” And it’s essentially a height restriction based on proximity to single-family homes. So Austin’s version of this restriction is particularly restrictive compared to peer cities, not only in Texas, but across the country. And affordable housing advocates and developers say that this rule really constrains housing supply at a time when we need more housing in Austin to accommodate demand and hopefully tame the rise in prices that we’ve seen, especially since the beginning of the pandemic.

Some people would say, “well, okay, is this really about free market economics?” I mean, you think about cities where there is far less zoning – Houston comes to mind, for example, and a lot of people bemoan the fact that you have this, well, some describe it as a mess, where you have all sorts of different buildings, different structures sort of butting up against each other without much concern for broader developmental considerations. Is that not a legitimate concern that you need to have something that keeps the aesthetics and protects the property values of existing landowners? 

Oh, it’s certainly a legitimate concern. I guess the counterargument to that, affordable housing advocates would make, is that you have to find a balance between preserving existing neighborhoods and also accommodating the really rapid growth that Austin has seen that has been hamstrung to an extent by these pretty restrictive land use regulations that don’t allow taller apartment buildings in a lot of the places that people generally agree that they should go, such as on major streets – because of their proximity to single-family homes.

What would Hughes’ bill do, effectively?

Effectively, it would prevent cities from enforcing compatibility beyond 50 feet from any given property. And that’s pretty significant in Austin’s case, because the current rules extend 540 feet, or about two football fields, from single-family homes. And this is compared to other cities in Texas, such as Dallas and San Antonio, that already have compatibility regulations that only extend 50 feet. And Houston, like you mentioned, doesn’t have zoning. So it also doesn’t have these height restrictions based on the proximity of properties to single-family homes.

You know, something else that sticks out about this: Hughes’ district is out in East Texas. But as written, this bill would only really apply to big cities, major cities. Why is Hughes taking up an issue that is so local at the state Legislature?

Right, so it’s really hard to see this bill as anything other than targeting Austin. The question as to why a state senator from East Texas would care about land use regulations like this in Austin is, you know, kind of up to speculation and conjecture at this point. We haven’t really seen this kind of state preemption of local regulations in the land use realm, as far as I know. So this is kind of showing the state Legislature’s appetite to override rules that are inherently very local.

How much of an appetite is there for real? I mean, any indication how likely it is this bill will pass?

It’s really hard to know at this point. The state legislative session just started. You know, it certainly helps that the bill was filed by a Republican. So I think affordable housing advocates and developers are cautiously optimistic that this bill has a chance of passing.

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