- By Philip Jankowski American-Statesman Staff
The flashing LEDs of digital billboards and the rewriting of Austin’s land use code might not seem related. But a recent petition effort to put both measures before Austin voters next year has made the two strange bedfellows.
Billy Reagan, the head of the Austin billboard company Reagan National Advertising, paid longtime activist Linda Curtis $5,000 in August to create a petition effort seeking to change local billboard laws. Curtis, with Reagan’s blessing, in turn took that money to create IndyAustin, a special political action committee that is now promoting changing local billboard ordinances and placing CodeNext on the ballot in 2018.
Through a spokesman’s statement, Reagan said he supports all of IndyAustin’s efforts, including a third petition drive that would make it easier for voters to challenge the Austin City Council’s actions.
“Billy Reagan has chosen to support IndyAustin for 2 reasons,” the statement said. “First both he and IndyAustin agree that City Hall should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. Second, local voters deserve a greater voice when it comes to neighborhood redevelopment, sign regulations and other issues that impact them on a daily basis.”
IndyAustin is one of two political action committees angling to give voters the final say on CodeNext, an overhaul of the complex development code spilling across more than 1,300 pages. Before there was talk of a petition drive, the City Council aimed to take its final vote in April on CodeNext, approving the rules that spell out what kind of development can go where and what the city will look like decades from now.
The plan would allow more housing to be developed along major corridors and in the central city, but critics fear those more dense developments could bring worse traffic congestion and change the feel of established neighborhoods.
Members of Evolve Austin, a coalition of development interests and nonprofits pushing for more affordable housing, oppose the petition drive. Some say the effort is designed to delay and even kill CodeNext, preventing Austin from making the changes needed to accommodate growth.
“It’s going to turn out to be a change versus status quo vote,” said Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin and a representative of One Voice Central Texas who volunteers with Evolve Austin.
To put any of Curtis’ three items on the March 6 ballot, organizers would need to gather roughly 15,000 signatures for each cause by mid-January.
The CodeNext petition would give voters a simple up or down vote on whether the city should adopt the code it will spend more than $6 million creating.
The billboard petition would alter a moratorium on billboards in Austin, allowing companies to replace exiting billboards with digital LED signs, which are currently prohibited in Austin.
The third petition Curtis is pushing would make it easier for Austin residents to petition and force a vote on any action undertaken by the Austin City Council.
Another political action committee is also promoting a referendum on CodeNext.
Attorney Fred Lewis, the head of a group highly critical of CodeNext known as Community Not Commodity, has started a political action committee called Let Us Vote Austin. That group is only promoting the CodeNext petition and has no ties to the billboard petition or the third measure to allow more referendums.
Both Curtis and Lewis have been successful in forcing referendums with petitions. Lewis was one of the main organizers of the successful referendum to change the City Council from seven officials elected citywide to 10 district-based representatives and a citywide mayor, a system known as 10-1. Curtis was the leader behind a 2007 petition to remove subsidies to the Domain; the item made it to the ballot, but voters opted to keep the subsidies in place.
“These folks are really good at organizing on the front end of a petition,” said Mark Littlefield, a local lobbyist and political strategist. “They are really good about doing it on shoestring budgets. They are really good at telling people who they should be afraid of and who to blame. That is what 90 percent of politics is about these days.”
For Community Not Commodity, that target is Evolve Austin.
“One ugly reality is that the pro-CodeNext campaign is a front for the largest real-estate development scheme our city has ever seen,” said a Sept. 15 statement from Community Not Commodity that named Evolve Austin specifically for its ties to real estate business groups.
Evolve Austin came about before CodeNext existed to explore how to implement the 2012 comprehensive growth plan Imagine Austin, but it has focused on the land-use code rewrite in recent months. Beyond the business organizations such as the Austin Board of Realtors, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin that Evolve Austin counts as partners, the group has many nonprofit organizations involved, including Caritas of Austin, the Austin Justice Coalition and Habitat for Humanity.
The Austin Board of Realtors is the group’s No. 1 donor, a spokeswoman for Evolve Austin said. The organization, which is a nonprofit but not a political action committee, would not provide specific information about how much money it has received.
Internal Revenue Service filings show relatively little money spent by the nonprofit in recent years. It has no staff, but staffers from many of its partner organizations often perform in-kind work for Evolve Austin, the organization said.
The group has focused in recent months on how to create low-income housing in Austin’s central core. Bringing in developers and Realtors involves the subject matter experts to create affordable housing, Quinn said.
Quinn said that CodeNext should not be an “either/or” proposition and that people on both sides of development issues need to be willing to compromise to avoid becoming entrenched and heading down a “path of no return.”
Otherwise, Quinn said, “we will become San Francisco.”
Curtis has not weighed in on the merits of creating denser growth in Austin. She said she only wants Austin voters, not the City Council, to decide the merits of CodeNext.
Lewis’ organization is far more critical of CodeNext and has been largely in favor of slowing the process.
Neither Curtis nor Lewis would say how many petition signatures they had gathered. But both said Friday that their efforts were going well.
“It is starting to hum and starting to get out into neighborhoods,” Lewis said.