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Neighborhood reflects frustration over planning process

Monday, March 24, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

A standoff at a Planning Commission subcommittee last week highlighted the rising frustration over the effectiveness of the city’s neighborhood planning process, most recently in the South Lamar Combined Neighborhood Planning Area.


Neighborhood leaders Bryan King and Jeff Jack brought some rather heated protests to last week’s Planning Commission subcommittee meeting, led by Commissioner Saundra Kirk. The chief concern of leaders in the neighborhood planning area – which is actually a combination of the Barton Hills/Barton View, Zilker, Galindo and South Lamar neighborhood plans – was the veto power given to staff members of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department to override recommendations.


Too often, neighborhoods consider their efforts on neighborhood plans to be futile or a waste of time, eventually trumped by a city staff recommendation or property owner appeal, King said.  In response, the South Lamar group presented a nine-page memo that included recommendations for improvements to the neighborhood planning process: additional advance planning; more time for leaders to get buy-in from their stakeholders; feedback on plan recommendations from individual city departments; and a consensus threshold set at 25 percent of the stakeholders before a minority report was presented to Planning Commission or Council.


In other words, one property owner’s protests would not be enough to override a choice.


“Let’s not forget that each property owner has the opportunity to have a valid petition on their particular lot of they do not like the FLUM, and so they always have the right to be heard before PC and CC,” neighborhood leaders wrote. “But if it only takes one stakeholder to disagree, then we have set up a situation where anyone has veto power over the entire group effort.”


The Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department recommended, as an alternative, that groups for and against a particular proposal be listed, according to the memo.


“This is not acceptable, either,” the leaders wrote. “What we want is no alternative recommendations to be forwarded to PC and CC unless more than 25 percent of the stakeholder groups endorse the alternative, and we want the percentage of supporters clearly stated to both the PC and CC.”


King said it was ridiculous to allow one renegade property owner to control the planning agenda when the vast majority of the stakeholders were in agreement on zoning. Neighborhood planning should have some controls based on weighting stakeholders.


The neighborhood group also has lobbied heavily for capacity limits on their participating neighborhoods, to understand just how dense the ultimate density of a neighborhood would be, not unlike figures that then-Planning Commissioner Cid Galindo distributed on behalf of the city sustainability initiative. Neighborhood leaders would like city staff to combine density given the anticipated development of property.


By far, the most controversial aspect of the proposal was the role the South Lamar neighborhood leaders wanted city staff to play in the neighborhood plan. In short, the neighborhood wanted city staff to provide logistical and technical support, but they did not want the staff members to be an equal stakeholder at the table during the process.


In other words, neighborhood leaders wanted their choices to be the final word. King used a bowling alley analogy. The bowling alley lane was the land development code. The city’s comprehensive plan was the rubber bumpers sometimes placed over the gutter.


As long as the neighborhood’s proposal – that bowling ball – stays in that alley, then there is no reason for city staff to interfere with the final recommendation.


“We shouldn’t have to be duking this out, tract by tract,” King said.


Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department staff members are not honest brokers, King said. They have their own goals and interests. It is like having a disagreement with your boss facilitated by your boss, he said.


It is one thing to cite a section of code to trump a planning team’s recommendation, Jack said. It is another thing when a staff member is offering an opinion.


“If it’s just an opinion… that’s what we’re fighting,” Jack said.


The neighborhood expressed such strong views on these issues that a facilitator from the University of Texas was brought in to try to negotiate resolution on the handful of tracts where the neighborhood and city staff differ. That effort failed to come to final closure, leading NPZD Director Greg Guernsey to put the plan on hold, writing in an e-mail that “it would be in the best interest of all parties not to move forward at this time.”


“I believe it would be possible to address your concerns relating to notification, capacity analysis and perhaps, the evolution of the planning team into the neighborhood planning contact team,” Guernsey wrote. “However, some of the other proposed changes suggested, such as giving staff the same participation status as a stakeholder and removing the ability for staff to make a recommendation is not possible and would be a fundamental change in the way we currently process neighborhood plans.”


Jack said the city had created a role for the neighborhood that put them at the beginning (vision and goals) and at the end (final approval) but neglected to include individual neighborhoods on the final decision on the important middle part (zoning approval).


No matter how hard the neighborhood leaders pushed, they could not quite get the commissioners to land on their side. Council clearly has a number of its own planning goals that may not win universal appeal from the neighborhood but which staff continues to represent during the neighborhood planning process.


Chair Dave Sullivan suggested – as one possibility – that the city suspend neighborhood planning until the city’s new comprehensive plan is complete, which will incorporate some of the city’s newer initiatives.


With no real consensus on the issue – and a stalemate between commissioners and neighborhood leaders — the discussion on the South Lamar neighborhood combined area plan was tabled until a future subcommittee meeting.

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