Opponents of CodeNext, Austin’s land-use code rewrite, sued the city Friday afternoon to try to force a ballot initiative asking voters to make such land-use changes subject to a vote from residents.
The suit is the expected next step after Austin City Council members last month declined to place a petition-initiated ordinance on November’s ballot. The ordinance would make CodeNext and other measures like it subject to elections. The city verified a petition with more than 31,000 signatures to place the item on the ballot, but attorneys advised the city that state law prevents votes on zoning.
“The easy thing to do here would be to put this on the ballot and walk away,” Mayor Steve Adler said last month, “but to me that wouldn’t be right because it would be illegal.”
Instead, the council voted 6-4 to place the item on the ballot only if ordered by a court to do so, setting up this week’s lawsuit. Council Members Alison Alter, Ora Houston, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo cast the dissenting votes.
CodeNext, five years and $8 million in the making, would spell out what can be built and where in Austin in the future. It aims to fix zoning rules widely believed to be broken and allow more density on key corridors in the city. But its process has pitted more density-friendly urbanists against neighborhood preservationists, who oppose the changes.
Attorneys Fred Lewis and Bill Bunch, who have led efforts against CodeNext, filed the lawsuit on behalf of NAACP President Nelson Linder, PODER Director Susana Almanza, Austin Neighborhoods Council President Jeff Jack, former neighborhoods council President Mary Ingle, engineer Lauren Ross and activists Jane and Gilbert Rivera.
It asks for an expedited hearing and a judgment that city officials must place the land-use initiative called for in the petition on the November ballot. If passed, the ordinance “then would allow Austinites to vote on CodeNext itself before it takes effect,” the lawsuit says.
Lewis said he hopes to have a hearing on the case this month, in time for any appeals to occur during July and the council to take steps in August to add the measure to the ballot.
“I think the city of Austin is going to cooperate with us on getting an expedited hearing,” he said. “We’re all going to be moving pretty fast.”
Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria said Friday that the suit was the expected and correct way to settle the matter.
“We knew we were going to get sued either way, and we figured it would be better to interpret the law the way we did and let someone else file a suit and let a court decide,” he said. “If they’re right, we’ll have no problem putting it on the ballot.”
Want to weigh in on CodeNext?
The Austin City Council’s second CodeNext public hearing will be 10 a.m. Saturday at City Hall, 301 W. Second St.
Residents also may view and offer comments about the current draft of the code and zoning map at codenext.civicomment.org and codenext.engagingplans.org/codenext-comparison-map.