In May of 2012, as “The Avengers” hit theaters and President Barack Obama first said he supported gay marriage rights, the Austin City Council under Mayor Lee Leffingwell passed a resolution directing the city manager to look at ways to streamline the city’s permitting process for special events.
This month, more than five years later, a new City Council agreed to postpone those changes yet again after city staff members said they need more time to hear from the public.
The draft ordinance organizes event-permit requirements into tiers, by event size, rather than the one-size-fits-all system that applies now. It would create four event tiers and authorizes an interdepartmental team to manage applications for them.
The call for a simplified permitting process came after organizers of races, concerts and other events complained of having to get applications from the Police Department, city planners, transportation officials and various other corners of the city bureaucracy, regardless of whether they were hosting a neighborhood block party or a live music festival.
Since the council approved a first reading of the draft ordinance in August 2013, staffers have given at least 17 presentations on the document to seven city commissions and the City Council. The council approved a second reading this year, but still needs to vote a third time. This month, at the request of staffers, they postponed that vote until February — a shorter postponement than staff members requested.
“It’s been four years since the council passed the first and second reading of this, and it’s time to get it done,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said.
William Manno, program manager for Austin’s Center for Events, which would become the one-stop shop for event organizers, said in a recent interview that the ordinance was important, but it had fallen off the front burner as other things came up.
“It started out as a very large priority but, then, after first reading, council decided they wanted to do a committee,” he said. “It was decided later that they weren’t going to do that. The attorney working on the ordinance got pulled for short-term rentals and short-term rentals took a high priority for a long time.”
In the meantime, he said, his office might not have done as much neighborhood outreach as it should have, leading to neighborhood concerns that surfaced late in the process and that he considers based on misconceptions.
One of the biggest issues still in contention is that the ordinance deletes provisions allowing neighborhoods to prevent road closures if 20 percent of landowners on a block object, unless the council overrules them with a supermajority vote. David King, a neighborhood activist in the Zilker area, said it’s important for neighborhoods to keep that option.
“It’s very rare that issues don’t get resolved and they have to go to council,” King said. “It gives a good balance of power, and the event organizers work with us.”
Manno called the existing system a problem because, on blocks with few landowners, a single person can throw a wrench in event plans. And in the rare times street closure disputes make it to council members, they’re faced with either overruling neighbors or shutting down a long-planned event on very short notice.
“Several council members have expressed they don’t want to be in that position,” he said.
Though the two votes on the ordinance so far came four years apart, under different City Councils, only a few changes were made in between. One deleted references to “high capacity event venues” — effectively exempting Circuit of the Americas from its provisions, after the racetrack’s attorneys questioned why it was needed for them, Manno said.
Another change adds a section specifically for neighborhood block parties, requiring them to go through a permit process significantly less burdensome than a regular special event process. Recommendations from a Parkland Events Task Force last year were unrelated, but aimed not to conflict with the proposed ordinance.
Despite the years of inaction, Manno said it was a priority to set a system that treats events differently by size.
“We are extremely close,” he said. “Outside of summer, there’s hardly a weekend that doesn’t have not just one, but multiple, events. We have to balance the quality of life for the residents with the vibrancy of events in Austin.”