Dueling commissions at odds over CodeNext


Highlights

An imbalance in power between Austin’s two land-use commissions could spell trouble for CodeNext.

The Planning Commission has moved in step with CodeNext’s schedule while its counterpart urged a slower pace.

Both commissions are charged with delivering a final recommendation on CodeNext to the City Council.

However, only the Planning Commission is required by city law to issue a final recommendation on CodeNext.

It was roughly 11:40 p.m. Tuesday at Austin City Hall, and Planning Commission board member Nuria Zaragoza was trying to get everyone to agree on removing the specific timeline from a hand-drawn flow chart.

“Can we please just call the question?” Zaragoza said. “I feel like we need to leave tonight.”

It was midway through the eighth hour that members of the 13-person advisory board had been discussing CodeNext.

The lengthy discussion over Zaragoza’s motion, which was related to the Planning Commission’s schedule for review of the city’s massive land use rewrite, might have seemed overwrought to the non-initiated.

READ: Environmental groups join battle over CodeNext

But the ending vote just shy of midnight set in place a schedule that would hold the commission in step with CodeNext’s planned approval in April. The Planning Commission’s continued march forward has placed the group at odds with its counterpart, the Zoning and Platting Commission, which has tended to urge slowing the pace of CodeNext’s adoption.

Their decisions could affect the timeline of CodeNext’s approval, its final cost to taxpayers — and could even lead to the unraveling of the four-year $8.5 million process.

The Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission are the city’s two land use boards that make recommendations on rezoning requests in the central core of the city and its more suburban outskirts, respectively.

Both have been charged with delivering final recommendations on CodeNext to the Austin City Council. However, only the Planning Commission is required by city law to do so, creating an imbalance in power that has crept closer to the spotlight as critics have begun to assail the Planning Commission as a board with too many connections to real estate interests and developers.

Any unilateral move by the Planning Commission to endorse CodeNext without an endorsement from the more neighborhood-friendly Zoning Commission could become fodder for those who would like to put CodeNext on a referendum ballot, where they would lobby for residents to defeat it.

“I think an exclusive endorsement of CodeNext by the Planning Commission will only fuel the polarization, which will be totally unfortunate and a likely death knell of CodeNext,” said retired planner Jim Duncan, the vice chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission.

CodeNext: Is Austin doing enough to reach out to non-English speakers?

CodeNext is the city’s attempt to address many of Austin’s problems such as affordability, gentrification and traffic by rewriting the land-use code and adopting the recommendations in the city’s 2012 comprehensive plan Imagine Austin. It aims to increase Austin’s housing supply by encouraging density along major roads and in the central city.

The leading critics of CodeNext, such as the nonprofit advocacy group Community Not Commodity, have characterized it as an effort that caters to a real estate community hungry to further capitalize on a building boom that would tear apart established neighborhoods. Proponents say increases in residential density in Austin’s urban core would create more affordable housing closer to downtown and reduce traffic by creating more walkable communities.

Community Not Commodity, which is spearheading an effort to give voters the final say on CodeNext, added more fuel to the fire last week in announcing its intention to take possible legal action against the Planning Commission on the belief that it violates Austin’s city charter because too many members are associated with real estate and development. The group’s leader, Fred Lewis, said the commission’s composition makes its CodeNext work “illegitimate.”

MORE: Group says Planning Commission’s roster violates Austin city charter

Earlier this month, four members of the Planning Commission took the unusual step of holding a press conference to announce opposition to delaying CodeNext’s approval in any form. To some, the event reflected a widening gap between the boards.

“I think that the Zoning and Platting Commission has come to a different conclusion than the Planning Commission in respect to the urgency of the process,” said William Burkhardt, the chair of Austin’s Board of Adjustment and a nonvoting member of the Planning Commission. “The Planning Commission is acting with urgency and ZAP is asking for a more measured and slower pace.”

Regardless, both groups are gearing up for a race to the finish line in their final analysis and recommendations on the vast code — which weighed in at 1,388 pages on draft two and was missing a few sections — as well as the roughly 300-square-mile zoning map that were unveiled in September.

“Now we are putting the pedal to the metal,” Duncan said. “The next 60 days are going to be critical in how the two commissions handle it.”

Despite that sentiment, Duncan said it is hard for outsiders to see the quickened pace given that, for the past four years, staffers and consultants have been creating the code and zoning maps, with costs spiraling to more than quadruple what was originally contracted in 2013 in what was thought to be a two-year contract.

MORE: Austin council members’ anxiety grows over CodeNext’s cost, timeline

But in this phase, decisions on the minutiae of what can go where that had been made behind closed doors will now be brought to center stage, with each decision live-streamed on the city’s website and with each move scrutinized by the skeptics at City Hall.

Stephen Oliver, an architect and the chair of the Planning Commission, said he is already preparing for the final sprint. During Tuesday’s meeting, he asked the city to begin looking for a very large venue to conduct an all-day public comment session to both boards, which began meeting jointly last year regularly to discuss CodeNext issues.

“We know that the closer you get to any deadline the stress level kicks up for everybody,” Oliver told the American-Statesman.

Both boards have scheduled more frequent meetings. And the two will continue to meet jointly on specific CodeNext issues.

Oliver continues to be confident about delivering recommendations to the City Council on time. But the result of Zaragoza’s motion late Tuesday night changed how the Planning Commission will conduct its final review of CodeNext by separating the CodeNext text and map in its recommendations.

It will mean the group will review the two individually, referring the text to the City Council before weighing in on the zoning map. Oliver said this was not “decoupling” the two. But Burkhardt said it seemed like a sign that the Planning Commission might be coming more in line with the Zoning and Platting Commission.

Either way, both boards have a lot ahead of them.

“It’s going to be an interesting 2018,” Duncan said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Trump cracks down on crime, but not on the police who fight it
Trump cracks down on crime, but not on the police who fight it

Six years ago, a police officer in this city in eastern Washington was convicted of beating a disabled man to death and trying to cover it up. After other alarming episodes involving Spokane officers came to light, the city asked federal officials to suggest changes to the Police Department as part of an Obama-era policing program.  Ever since...
As her last day with the Fed nears, Janet Yellen looks back on her first
As her last day with the Fed nears, Janet Yellen looks back on her first

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, made a relaxed appearance at New York University on Tuesday night, answering questions about her life in economics and her time at the Fed one day after she announced plans to leave the central bank next year.  Yellen said nothing new about the Fed’s policy plans for the coming months, leaving...
Second judge blocks Trump’s transgender ban in the military
Second judge blocks Trump’s transgender ban in the military

A second federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s proposed ban on transgender troops Tuesday, saying President Donald Trump’s announcement of the ban in a series of tweets this summer was “capricious, arbitrary, and unqualified.”  In a preliminary injunction, Judge Marvin J. Garbis of the U.S. District Court for...
What you need to know about a repeal of net neutrality
What you need to know about a repeal of net neutrality

For you and me, the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to repeal net neutrality rules can be boiled down to two questions: What might happen? And whom do you trust?  Here’s our guide for internet users looking for answers.    The net neutrality rules were passed in 2015 during the Obama administration when Democrats...
“Hi Drumstick.” Trump pardons a turkey, and likes it.
“Hi Drumstick.” Trump pardons a turkey, and likes it.

It began with a familiar pledge: President Donald Trump’s audience, he promised, was going to be very proud of him.  “Hi, Drumstick,” Trump called out Tuesday, preparing to exercise his least controversial executive authority. “Oh, Drumstick, I think, is going to be very happy.”  It ended with characteristic...
More Stories