Dueling commissions at odds over CodeNext

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 Politics
Ralph Barrera
Austin City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, at center, goes over his District 3 maps with others during an open house for CodeNext in the lobby of Austin City Hall on Sept. 20. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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.

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