- By Editorial Board
The demise of CodeNext – made official by the Austin City Council last week — won’t stop a November ballot petition regarding CodeNext and land-use matters, which if passed by voters and sustained by a court, could dramatically change the way the city does zoning in future years.
The city might well end up with a system that gives residents significantly more power over land-use and zoning matters, but at the same time, undermines Austin’s 10-1 system of government. That is why voters need to carefully weigh the stakes of the CodeNext ballot petition.
With several unanswered questions, including whether the ballot measure conflicts with state law, it is premature to draw hard conclusions. But if the measure prevails at the polls and in the courts, Austin’s way of deciding zoning matters would change, say opponents and supporters of CodeNext.
For instance, it is not very likely that the city would repeat the costly, multiyear effort that many say doomed CodeNext — a massive zoning and land-use overhaul the city attempted all at once, spending more than $8 million over several years.
Instead, the city likely would do zoning in phases to prevent triggering long wait times and additional elections, as the CodeNext ordinance petition would require if voters passed it and courts cleared it. In other words, to stay outside the reach of the ordinance, the council would need to do zoning in small bites, rather than the mouthful it attempted through CodeNext.
The CodeNext ordinance petition on the ballot doesn’t give voters direct authority to approve or disapprove sweeping zoning changes, such as those in the now-defunct CodeNext.
Instead, the petition asks whether comprehensive zoning and land-use changes the council adopts must have voter approval to go into effect. If voters say, “yes” — which many are predicting, given the 31,000 voters who signed the petition supporting the measure — then future zoning and land-use overhauls could not take effect unless and until voters say so.
The ballot petition also asks voters whether a waiting period should be required before CodeNext — or something akin to it — and related nonzoning regulations go into effect. Keep in mind, those waiting periods could be up to three years.
Nonzoning provisions are key, as they include environmental protections, affordable housing initiatives, transportation and parking policies, and water quality and utility requirements, among other things.
Clearly, the petition shifts more power over zoning matters to residents. But that power, in practice, would not be spread equally across the city. West-central Austin neighborhoods, with higher voter turnout than other areas of the city, would gain greater influence in such matters.
That runs counter to the reasons Austin voters overwhelmingly established a 10-1 governing system in which all council members, except the mayor, are elected from districts. Austin residents aimed to balance the outsized influence of west-central Austin and establish a council that reflected Austin’s geographic, ethnic and racial diversity. The mayor still is elected citywide.
The change was needed. Under the previous system in which all seven council members were elected citywide, elections largely were controlled by west-central Austin because of its voting strength. Therefore, council members were beholden to that voting bloc for their political survival.
We previously noted that the 10-1 system is the fairest way to decide big issues, such as zoning. That still is our view, given the challenges facing Austin, such as the city’s rapid growth, mobility challenges and lack of affordable housing.
Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, reminds us that “Austin has grown significantly since 1900, doubling in population every 20-25 years.”
“We need a land-use code and nonzoning regulations that allow all of us to plan for the residential and commercial space we know we will need,” he says, cautioning that the waiting periods in the petition ordinance could slow things considerably.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler is concerned about how waiting periods could stymie work on improvements to city infrastructure. He pointed out that since wait periods start after council elections in even-numbered years, elections for approving zoning would happen in odd-numbered years. With no presidential or gubernatorial races on the ballot, voter turnout would be significantly lower in those years.
Point taken. But if voters clip the council’s wings in zoning matters, council members can blame only themselves.
They threw caution to the wind, moving too fast on too many fronts with a CodeNext rewrite that was more than 1,500 pages in its third draft. Amid public confusion and mistrust, the council plowed on.
The council’s maneuver to keep the measure off the ballot failed after a state district judge last month ordered that it be put on the November ballot. In doing so, however, the judge said it was premature to decide the measure’s legality. That question still looms.
For now, Adler and other council members have directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to take the lead in developing a new process that ultimately yields a land-development code — a tall order.
With momentum on the side of the ballot ordinance, the public likely will gain a greater check on the city manager and council in zoning matters. That is a sword that cuts two ways: The city could go in a new direction in which zoning changes are done in phases, and rely on compromise between neighborhood groups and developers; or be tripped up by wait times and other measures that undermine the 10-1 system’s promise of equity.