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Staff envisions redesign of city’s Land Development Code in 2015

Friday, November 2, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Officials with the City of Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department told members of the Austin City Council Thursday that they’ve targeted September 2015 as the delivery date for a total redesign of the city’s land development code – that is, so long as everything goes perfectly.


“We think this schedule is reasonable. It can happen if there is a great deal of consensus; that’s what we want to do,” said Planning’s Garner Stoll before issuing a major caveat. “Let me add something to this: Not knowing what changes (may come forward), it’s hard to predict how long the adoption itself will take.”


Given the history, the complexity, and the number of stakeholders that will likely be involved in the process, Stoll’s caveat seems like an understatement. Council Member Bill Spelman used a 1999 stab at code revision to illustrate that point.


“We’ve tried to do this before,” said Spelman. “At the end of a several month process, we found that we had not changed a single solitary word of the land development code. The description for why that I heard from an assistant city manager who was honchoing the whole process – (and) who was very frustrated by the whole thing – was that behind every single line in that code there was a story, and somebody … knew the story. As soon the story came out, people just shook their heads and said we’re not going to be able to change that one either.”


This time around, city staff, Austin planning commissioners and a consultant will be charged with a wholesale reimagining of city land code. According to a presentation to Council offered by Planning Department staffers Stoll and George Adams the process will reconsider procedures for review and approval of development projects, zoning, subdivisions, site plans, drainage, transportation, the environment, and, apparently, signs.


Stoll and Adams told Council members that the redesign would reach far down into the Austin’s planning approach to include the basic philosophy behind how staff lays out the city. Indeed, much has changed since the last time the city examined its land development code in 1984. This includes more modern thinking on urban design, such as form-based code, something that the city wants to try, and the eventual reconstructions of the Airport Boulevard and East Riverside corridor regions.


Adams admitted that the process would determine the specifics about what exactly will go into the new code. But he was able to offer a general statement about the type of approach staff is hoping for. “We know that we’re looking for a code that is user-friendly, is easily administered and one that helps us realize the vision of Imagine Austin,” the city’s newly adopted long-term comprehensive plan.


Staffers pitched a steering committee to help drive the effort. They suggested an 11-member body that includes appointees from all seven Council offices, as well as four representatives chosen by staff. This idea met with a mixed reception.


Council Member Chris Riley suggested that the steering committee structure would be “a little unusual.”


“I don’t remember a process in which we had a committee composed of staff appointees and Council appointees,” he said.


Stoll suggested that the idea was to assure that land development code experts were included in the process.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was more positive about the idea. “I find it very interesting,” she said. “At what stage in the process are you going to make those evident to Council?”


Stoll said that staff hadn’t yet discussed when that might happen.


Staff’s plan also includes $2 million for a consultant “and related expenses.” Stoll noted that he hoped that whoever filled that role would be courageous and straightforward. That statement earned some half-joking concern from Spelman.


“I’m sure there are courageous and straightforward consultants out there some place, and they just don’t make very much money,” he said. Then, Spelman – proudly waving his true wonk colors – quoted from a BBC-produced public affairs-themed sitcom called Yes, Minister. “If you want to give the minister second thoughts about the question tell him that the decision is controversial,” Spelman continued. “If you want to be really sure that the minister doesn’t accept it, you must say that the decision is courageous. … Controversial only means this will lose you votes. Courageous means this will lose you the election.”


Ever topical, Spelman brought the quote back to the issue at hand. “I think the same thing could be true here,” he said, before referencing the 1999 debate. “We hire a really courageous consultant he probably won’t stay a consultant too long. So when you actually get to the point of the inevitable interview … I think one of the things we’re going to have to be looking for is tact and diplomacy, and the ability to deal with a lot of interest groups who are often at odds with one and other.”


Still, Spelman found positives in the whole plan. “That said, I like that you’ve got a check-back with the public in a couple of different places,” he continued. “It does seem to me that you’ve got your head screwed-on straight with the idea that just because it comes back to the City Council in the fall of 2015, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be adopted in the fall of 2015.”

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