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Council debates, OKs changes to open space, landmark ordinances

Monday, December 19, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Council tweaked changes to both the Open Space and the Historic Landmark ordinances one final time on Thursday night, finding two new points of contention that required some back-and-forth among Council members.


Changes to the Historic Landmark Program were limited to the ordinance change, rushing to meet the magic deadline of Jan. 1 to apply to the new tax year.


During a discussion with Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Development Review Department, Council appeared ready to let go of its proposal to come up with a new formula that merged land and improvement values. They also agreed with the Planning Commission’s suggestion that the Consumer Price Index be applied and abatements reviewed every three years.


The contentious matter, of course, was whether the abatements should be decided solely by the Planning Commission, as suggested by Commissioner Mandy Dealey. Rusthoven said the decision had not been vetted, and that it was the flip side of a decision back in 2007 to send all abatement cases to the Zoning and Platting Commission. That decision was reversed the following year, with abatement cases going to their respective land use commission.


“Back in 2007, when an amendment shifted all the cases to ZAP, this upset a lot of people, including some people in this room,” Rusthoven said. “The next year we reversed course, and allowed the cases to go their respective land use commissions, based on whether they had a neighborhood plan or not.”


The vast majority of abatement cases are in the central city, and most neighborhoods in the central city have a neighborhood plan. A controversy was created in Old Enfield, however, where an owner-initiated abatement going to the ZAP, and Historic Landmark initiated cases going to the Planning Commission.


Council Member Laura Morrison said she was hesitant to choose one land commission over another. Her bigger concern, however, was progress on the programmatic changes proposed in Council’s resolution, including the establishment of a program to assist East Austin residents in completing historic landmark applications and the establishment of an enterprise fund, using inspection fees, that could support a more robust landmark program.


Rusthoven promised Council a memo on his progress in these areas but noted that, when it came to the ordinance, Jan. 1 was the “magic day.”


Council unanimously approved Rusthoven’s recommendations, including the two-commission approach to abatement cases. The vote was 7-0.


Council also approved the open space ordinance on second and third reading after some late-night wordsmithing efforts by Council members two weeks ago.


Upon reflection, however, Council Member Chris Riley suggested re-inserting proposed language that would allow streetscape improvements to apply to open-space requirements on properties zoned Vertical Mixed-Use on major corridors.


Riley and Morrison squared off on this issue. Riley cited concerns of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. Staff in that department said taking streetscape exemptions off the table for VMU could affect affordability along what were intended to be high-density corridors.


Morrison, on the other hand, said VMU properties already were afforded plenty of benefits from the city’s commitment to density.


“We’ve already given increase in density, a lot of allowances there,” Morrison said, countering Riley’s suggestion. “What was not on our minds five years ago was, ‘How do we make sure we have housing for families?’”


To that end, family friendly open space was necessary, Morrison said. Council Member Kathie Tovo agreed with Morrison’s assessment, saying open space created more family friend neighborhoods. Riley disagreed.


“I do not consider this a step back,” Riley countered. “Open space on our core transit corridors will remain a significant concern.”


Riley’s starting point, however, remained affordability. A walkable dense community is family friendly. Once affordability is addressed, concerns such as open space would remain a chief concern for city leaders.


The final vote on Riley’s amendment was 5-2, with Morrison and Tovo opposed.

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