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Council begins deliberations on Austin Comprehensive Plan

Friday, April 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

After more than 30 months of focus groups, committee input and staff work, the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan arrived at City Council yesterday.


Staff opted to make two changes to the recommendations of the Planning Commission, and considering that the changes concerned the two most controversial aspects of the plan, they did not go unnoticed.  


Though the plan is nearly 250 pages, much of the debate in recent months has centered around two things: the role that neighborhood and area plans will play once the plan is adopted, and the inclusion or exclusion of SH-45 SW, the controversial road once planned for Southwest Travis and northern Hays County.


State Highway 45 SW has appeared and disappeared from drafts throughout the process. The road has long been a point of contention in the region, due to its placement over critical environmental features.


Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey said that staff recommended the road be left in as a “dashed line” on the map “to recognize that there is a discussion, that it could exist, or it might not exist in the future.”


“We don’t think that it should be removed from the plan. It still needs to be part of our dialogue that we really need to kind of fully flesh this out before it is just removed,” said Guernsey.


Council Member Kathie Tovo disagreed.


“Both the task force and the Planning Commission voted to remove SH 45 from the map… I believe we should be guided by their wisdom on this. They have spent lots of time talking to stakeholders, and this has been an ongoing point of discussion, and one that received a lot of consideration,” said Tovo.


On the neighborhood plan question, Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan told In Fact Daily, “I hate to boil it down this simply, but a key choice of words had to do with whether we would respect existing standards or whether we would retain existing standards. It’s deeper than that, but still that’s a way to simplify it.”


The Planning Commission voted to amend the plan in favor “retaining” standards though Sullivan himself voted against the amendment. Subsequently, staff opted to recommend the original language. 


“Part of the issue about retaining them, the question would be does it take off the table the ability to talk about them when we make changes to the Land Development Code? I don’t know… My colleagues said ‘no, it still allows flexibility to talk about these things.’ But again, there is a question about how people interpret words,” said Sullivan.


Council proved just as sensitive to semantics in this case, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell asking what the significance of the term “guided” was when used to describe the relationship of the comprehensive plan to existing neighborhood and area plans.


“They basically inform each other, one doesn’t necessarily trump the other. They both have a place in this process of moving forward,” said Guernsey.


Guernsey explained that were there any changes, they would still have to go through the plan amendment process.


“My understanding was that one does trump the other,” said Leffingwell. “That the existing zoning process and the existing neighborhood plan and future land use maps stayed in place and that the comprehensive plan is only advisory to that… I would very strongly suggest that you look for better language.”


Council Member Laura Morrison took it a step further, with a strong recommendation to retain the Planning Commission’s recommended language.


“If there is a will to take that out, it is my belief that would be a major change to the draft and that we would need to send it back to the Planning Commission,” said Morrison.


All of this, once settled, is leading up to a revision of the Land Development Code that will help implement the plan. Guernsey estimated would take about four years, and Leffingwell seemed to indicate was long overdue.


“I think we need some big changes in the land development code,” said Leffingwell.


“I think it’s time for a comprehensive look at our Land Development Code because, frankly, it’s gotten so complex that it is not helpful to people… I think as we’re going through this process anyway, and rewriting the code, we should pay special attention to getting rid of a lot stuff that is outdated, not appropriate, etc.”

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