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Citizens express concern over input on Comprehensive Plan rewrite

Monday, March 9, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Members of the City Council last week heard a plea for more public involvement in the process to draft a new Comprehensive Plan to replace the Austin Tomorrow Plan. Dozens of people turned out for a town hall meeting on the plan. The Council is scheduled to select a consultant for the plan in late April after postponing a vote to take more citizen input.

 

“Most of the feedback was…there’s not enough time for feedback. There was also feedback that it would be helpful to have more information,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. That prompted the delay until the April, said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “We became concerned that the process was beginning to look like it was upside down and going through too fast,” Leffingwell said. “I think when you go through a comprehensive planning process for the first time in 30 years, you’ve got to at least make sure that it gets off to a good start, and the feedback that we were getting was that it was not.”

 

Several of the speakers at Wednesday night’s hearing urged the Council to set up a citizens’ task force or committee prior to selecting a professional planning consultant. “We’re interested in seeing the Council and staff convene a community advisory committee before the consultant is chosen. That has been a very successful technique in other cities,” said Mark Yznaga with the group Liveable City. “I think that would help build some real support and infrastructure for the plan.”

 

Yznaga and other members of Liveable City had a lengthy list of questions about the process to select the consultant and the qualifications of the firms. They are seeking more details about the public outreach process the consultants are proposing to use, the names and backgrounds of members of the teams on the list of finalists, and details on each team member’s work on local projects or advocacy on local issues. While the city may be able to provide some of that information, staffers cautioned that other data would be protected as confidential under the city’s bidding process.

 

Another concern voiced at the meeting was that a relatively small number of firms that actually responded to the city’s RFQ from last September. Mike Trimble with the city’s Contract and Land Management office said that the city had sent out more than 250 invitation letters and that 82 firms actually picked up information packets. Of those, five submitted proposals and three made it to the finalists list. Trimble said that was fairly typical of such complicated projects, noting that Waller Creek Master Plan, the East Riverside Corridor Plan, and the I-35 Corridor Makeover project all had relatively few firms actually submit proposals.

 

There were also several questions about the timing of the plan, given the city’s current budget crunch. “For a lot of us who have waited 30 years since the last comprehensive plan, this is both an exciting and daunting time,” said Robin Rather. She called on the Council to make sure the project would have enough funding to be successful. “What is the best timing for a plan of this type? When it’s tough economic times, is it better to do planning because people have more time…or is it really risky, because we will probably be really fiscally constrained?  It’s a terrible thing to get excited about a plan and not have it implemented,” she said. “To not have it implemented because it’s not fiscally possible is particularly heartbreaking.”

 

Both Council members and staffers at the meeting said they wanted to get the planning process right, combining public input with the work already done. “There has been a tremendous amount of work by the subcommittee, by the Planning Commission, by our staff. We didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” said Council Member Randi Shade. “I think there is a tremendous amount of really, really good work that has been done up to this point, and we didn’t want to forget that. We want to enhance that.”

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