It seems that Travis County, The City of Austin and Mayor Steve Adler are doubling down on declaring construction sites “non-essential” businesses, in stark contrast with every other Texas County that has issued a Stay At Home order during the March 2020 COVID-19 Outbreak. As previously reported The City of Austin and Travis County are currently only allowing tradesmen to continue to work on low-income housing, housing for the homeless, and what Travis County and the City of Austin deem as municipality essential as well as allowing certain tradesmen such as electricians and plumbers to conduct “maintenance operations” such as unclogging a drain, but are not allowed to work on new construction except on those specific projects stated above. The Austin Business Journal reported that The president and CEO of the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, Phil Thoden was “disgusted” and felt the City of Austin was “intent on shutting down commercial construction.”
Thoden and many construction contractors have consulted with attorneys that interpret the City of Austin’s blanket shutdown order of construction sites as “illegal.” As interpreted The City cannot stop any construction project that is considered “critical infrastructure improvements” as classified by the Federal Government. Likewise there cannot be a stop order on any construction project that is funded directly or receives subsidies from tax dollars.
Right off the bat that prevents any roads, or government building construction project from being halted, including the new construction at the Texas Capital Complex and the University of Texas. Likewise it can be interpreted that would also include any public/private partnerships such as the Austin F/C stadium or even private developments that are built on land owned by the State of Texas such as the Indeed Tower. Even projects that are on the surface entirely “privately owned and developed” but have received tax breaks from the City such as the new Marriott Convention Center could also be considered not subject to the stop order.
That being said, leaders of groups representing Realtors, builders, contractors, architects, engineers and other businesses wrote in a letter emailed to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt on the evening of March 25 asking not only for a reversal of the construction ban but also stated that “We cannot express strongly enough how much confusion these documents have injected into the local building industry in a brief 24-hour period,” and “The lack of clarity in the city and county orders has thrown our building industry into complete confusion,” The letter also stated that construction projects are not densely populated job-sites and that the construction companies go the great lengths to protect the health and safety of their workers.
Talking with tradesman that wanted to remain anonymous, they stated their unions are also considering taking legal action against the city and county, with the intent of at least filing for a temporary injunction against the construction ban, not only to keep workers employed on the job-site, but for the overall safety regarding job-site conditions. You simply cannot “abandon” a construction site for more than a couple of days before conditions at the site start to deteriorate. Exposed wiring, unfinished drywall, and even form work is susceptible to damage from the weather, temporary scaffolding can become unstable and collapse without constant adjustments, and many construction materials could degrade through time and vandalism.
All told, Mayor Adler and Judge Eckhardt’s actions during the COVID-19 crisis seem to be alienating the real-estate developers, Chamber of Commerce Members, construction companies, and entertainment companies that helped them get elected. To all those entries, remember March when you go vote in November.