Group says Planning Commission’s roster violates Austin city charter

3:02 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Local
Nick Wagner
Residents listen to a panel of speakers at a CodeNext meeting in May at Austin City Hall. The city’s Planning Commission, which would make a recommendation on the new development rules, is facing scrutiny over the number of board members who have development-related jobs.

An advocacy group is alleging that the composition of an influential Austin land-use commission violates the city’s charter, is illegal and should be reconstituted or else face possible litigation.

The broadly anti-CodeNext group Community Not Commodity says the Planning Commission has twice the number of members connected to the real estate and development industry than the city charter allows.

Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman Staff
Austin attorney Fred Lewis is head of Community Not Commodity, a group that has been highly critical of CodeNext.

“The council Planning Commission appointments are subverting the will of Austin voters,” Community Not Commodity head Fred Lewis said. “Voters intended with the charter amendment to establish a Planning Commission controlled by the community; council has created a Planning Commission controlled by development, special interests.”

The group is threatening to take legal action — which could throw a wrench into the approval process for CodeNext, the city’s sweeping attempt to rewrite Austin’s entire land-use code. City officials have said the new code could help address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, such as affordability, traffic and gentrification.

The Planning Commission is one of two city land-use boards that make recommendations on rezoning and other land-use cases. The Planning Commission generally hears cases involving the central city and makes recommendations to the Austin City Council on changes to the zoning code.

Austin’s city charter states that at least two-thirds of the 13-member Planning Commission must be “lay members not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.”

However, Lewis said he counts eight members of the board as connected to businesses and organizations related to real estate development.

The board’s chair, Stephen Oliver, and three other members are architects. Its vice chair, Fayez Kazi, is the president of land-use engineering and planning firm Civilitude. Another member, James Schissler, is the vice president of Civilitude.

One member is the director of the nonprofit home-building organization Austin Habitat for Humanity, and another is a lawyer with the Travis County attorney’s office with a specialty in real estate law.

American-Statesman Staff
CodeNext would overhaul Austin’s development rules, which officials hope would help address such vexing issues as affordability and traffic.

The city has not received any formal complaints about the board’s makeup, a spokesman said.

“Depending on the circumstances, anyone with issues concerning the city’s boards or commissions has recourse by filing a complaint with the Ethics Review Board – for ethics related matters – or other appropriate legal channels,” a statement from the city said.

Lewis said Community Not Commodity has not decided how to move forward. He said the group could contact the Travis County attorney’s office, the district attorney or the Texas attorney general’s office.

“We are going take action, we just haven’t decided what,” he said.

The Planning Commission is the sole board required to vote on CodeNext before sending its recommendation to the City Council, which will review the draft code before its scheduled approval in April.

If the commission is unable to meet due to a court order or lack of a quorum, it could delay the CodeNext review process that Lewis and other CodeNext critics have been seeking to slow down for months.

However, the city’s land-use liaison, Andrew Rivera, said the council could treat a lack of a recommendation as similar to when the commission fails to endorse rezoning a parcel of land or a change to the land-use code.

In that case, the council might move forward without a recommendation.

“That is a possibility,” Rivera said. “Would the council wish to do so? I don’t know.”

Community Not Commodity is also pushing a petition that would have CodeNext put on March’s ballot. On Tuesday, the group held a rally outside of City Hall just as the Planning Commission was holding an extended meeting related to CodeNext, with demonstrators handing out yard signs and stickers that dubbed the five-year, $8.5 million project “CodeWreck.”

The group would need to gather 20,000 signatures, with a rough deadline of around early February, to trigger the ballot initiative.

Lewis said he and others met with Mayor Steve Adler in 2016 about the composition of the Planning Commission. At the time, Lewis said the city’s legal department told him that the board’s makeup was at the council’s discretion.

He disagrees.

“I’ve made it clear that that is not my position,” Lewis said.

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