HARLINGEN — As the city takes steps to cut hurdles standing in the way of subdivision developers, officials are aiming to keep higher drainage standards in place.
While some developers are calling for options to building detention ponds they argue boost new home prices, they want to know if they could widen drainage canals running along their subdivisions.
Last week, the city’s Planning and Zoning board denied that request.
Now, City Hall is turning those questions over to city commissioners, who said they want the authority to determine whether developers could bypass the requirement of building detention ponds if they widen their subdivisions’ drainage canals to carry more runoff.
“There might be other options to ensure we’re meeting those standards,” Mayor Norma Sepulveda said during a meeting Wednesday. “I’d like to see that developers have these alternative means to meet our high requirements and expectations.”
When it comes to the question of whether the city will allow developers to widen canals instead of building detention ponds, City Engineer Luis Vargas will help commissioners make the decision.
Commissioners are planning to revise an ordinance giving them the authority to make such decisions.
“Depending on the project, sometimes a detention pond is going to be ideal and the only thing that can ensure that they’re meeting the standards,” Sepulveda said, referring to developers. “Sometimes you don’t need that because there’s a ditch and you can widen the ditch. That’s where Luis will be able to tell whether you can or you can’t to make sure we’re building responsibly.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners also considered the Planning and Zoning board’s decision to change the city’s requisite requiring developers use steel to reinforce their subdivisions’ curbs and gutters.
Last week, the board gave developers the approval to use fiber mesh, instead.
“In regard to curb and gutter, the use of fiber-reinforced concrete in lieu of steel is acceptable,” Xavier Cervantes, the city’s planning and development director, told commissioners. “The use of fibers must meet the requirements of TxDOT.”
The Planning and Zoning board is also recommending commissioners cut down on the number of tests developers are required to perform to assure adequate concrete compaction.
“The testing requirements for drainage and streets were adjusted while not compromising in ensuring the city is accepting quality infrastructure,” Cervantes told commissioners. “It’s a good change for the city and for the developers.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Frank Morales questioned the city’s inspection of developers’ concrete testing.
“The developers are struggling to schedule a meeting with the inspector, not that the inspector is late to the meeting,” Vargas told Morales.
Now, the city is hiring a second inspector to improve the process, Cervantes said.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Sepulveda said. “Having an additional person, hopefully that alleviates it and then we will be receptive to that feedback should we need to change it, because those are important points and I know that was cause for concern. Hopefully we can fix that — that was the point of hiring this other individual to help.”
In 2020, the Planning and Zoning board drafted the city’s first version of the Subdivision Development Guide, a manual specifying engineering standards which toughened developers’ drainage requirements to protect homes against bigger storms.
In March, the past city commission boosted standards requiring developers step up measures by building bigger detention ponds whose costs are helping drive some subdivision lot prices as high as $50,000, developer Armando Elizarde said.
Last month, commissioners met with developers requesting they help streamline the development process, trim some requirements and revise detention pond standards.
“Some of the ideas presented include hiring more civil engineers to speed up the inspection process, allowing more than one person to sign the certificates of occupancy, eliminating the rebar requirement in sidewalks, creating a college program to train inspectors, adding more staff to answer phone calls and more leeway to determine if a detention pond is required in subdivisions,” city spokeswoman Irma Garza stated in a press release.
“The city has already taken a major first step by purchasing online software to streamline the permitting process,” she stated. “The software will allow developers, engineers and contractors to track their permitting process from beginning to end. The software will progressively come online in the coming months benefiting all parties.”
On Wednesday, Commissioner Daniel Lopez called on officials to help make the city more “pro-development.”
“We want to be a pro-development city and we don’t want to be throwing up more and more hurdles for developers,” Lopez said.
Meanwhile, Sepulveda is calling for more meetings with developers.
“We’ll continue to meet with developers and see how we can improve in making sure that as we move along … if we need to make more changes, we can do so,” she said.