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Long-awaited land use code overhaul starting soon

Monday, September 17, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The City of Austin is preparing to overhaul its Land Development Code for the first time in almost three decades, a daunting task that will involve an outside consulting team and additional Planning and Development Review Department staff.


The code rewrite will be the most visible result of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which will serve as a guide for the process. Last week, Assistant directors Garner Stoll and George Adams updated the Planning Commission on the process, which will kick off with a round of appearances before various commissions in the coming weeks.


“The experiences and understanding that came out of the Imagine Austin process pointed out the strengths and weaknesses in our code,” Adams told the commission. “The last revision to the code was in 1984, 28 years ago. Since 2005, we’ve had 180 proposed code amendments, which seems to point to issues within the code.”


Adams outlined a number of reasons to pursue the code rewrite: Amendments and exceptions have created too many lot-by-lot “custom” zonings. The code is rife with duplicative and conflicting requirements. It also contains an abundance of zoning districts: 60 in all. And the layering of those districts can create a single lot zoning as complicated as CS1-MU-V-CO-H-NP.


“Layering those regulations, one on top of another, makes it difficult to sift through those,” Adams said. “And because of the complexity of the code, we only have a limited number of folks with all the knowledge, which makes it difficult to get an answer to a question in a timely fashion.”


The complexity in the code has made the permitting process convoluted, Adams said. Variances before the Board of Adjustment are being used as planning tools. And, finally, the code has gotten to the point where it’s just not user-friendly anymore.


“It’s difficult to understand. It’s difficult to use, and it’s difficult to administer,” Adams said.


Stoll said cities have taken different positions on land use codes at the end of a comprehensive planning process. Some cities have chosen complete overhauls of the code; others have decided the codes need only small tweaks. Imagine Austin contains more than 30 policy directives, 40 action items, and a priority to revise the land development code with a compact and connected city in mind.


The topic city staff has raised repeatedly in recent years is the need to give the concept of form-based codes a thorough vetting. In truth, the code can take any number of forms: conventional, performance-based, impact-based, form-based, or a hybrid.


“It’s fairly likely we will be looking at a much-improved hybrid code,” Adams said. “We don’t think it’s going to be only one. We want our code to evolve into the best code we can create, the most user-friendly and the most clear and concise.”


The new city budget provides for three additional staff members to tackle the land use code overhaul: a senior planner, a division manager, and an administrative assistant. The timeline for the overhaul will begin in earnest once a Request for Qualifications for a consultant goes out in mid-October. Council will appoint an 11-member steering committee in November.


The consultant, whom Adams nicknamed the “explainer-in-chief,” will be in charge of taking a look at what is working and what isn’t working, described as “an act of triage” on the code. The consultant will be charged with creating two work products: a code diagnosis and an annotated outline of what needs to be fixed in the code.


Commissioners appeared open to the process. Chair Dave Anderson said he was pleased to see the public education component woven throughout the process. Board of Adjustment Chair and ex-officio member Jeff Jack noted that economics would probably drive the scope of the process. And Commissioner Richard Hatfield said he would provide Adams with a list of 16 land use priority items already outlined by his subcommittee.

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