Monday, March 10, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Panel debates future steps for Land Development Code rewrite

Some may think it’s moving too fast, and some may think it’s moving too slow, but most everyone agrees that the revision of the city’s Land Development Code continues to move toward what one stakeholder calls “difficult, necessary conversations.”


The process has been branded CodeNEXT by the city, and at last week’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee meeting, Council members considered what should, or should not, be next for the rewrite.


Though still in the early stages, the code rewrite process ran into neighborhood concerns last month. On Feb. 12, the Austin Neighborhoods Council executive committee voted to ask City Council to hold off on making a decision on what approach the rewrite will take. Currently, Council is scheduled to take that vote in October.


The ANC argues that such a pivotal decision should be made by the new single-member district Council who will be taking their seats in January of next year.


Staff disagrees. City planner George Zapalac told the committee that a decision to delay the vote until next year would mean a “significant loss of momentum for the rewrite,” and could impact the budget.


Land Development Code Revision Advisory Group members Dave Sullivan, Stephen Oliver, Mandy De Mayo and Stephen Delgado all weighed in on the proposed delay.


“This is a long, long complicated endeavor with so many opportunities for both public input and policymaker guidance and input on the process,” said De Mayo. “I am concerned about slowing down the process because it feels like, at many times, that we are moving at a somewhat glacial speed.”


Delgado agreed, noting that it was no surprise that the process would extend through several Councils. He guessed that delaying a vote at the beginning of the rewrite would have the effect of extending the rewrite process into the Council after the next one.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole pushed neighborhood representatives about the reasoning behind waiting for the next Council before making any decisions.


“The neighborhoods also elected all of us. And it seems like there is something magical that just hasn’t been said that is being thought about the new Council and the way that they are going to make decisions. I just want to know what that is,” said Cole.


Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association President Laura Pressley said that, for her, it boiled down to accountability and neighborhood representation.


“We really think that we need accountability going forward,” said Pressley. “And with maybe two of you getting back on (Council) – maybe – that’s not enough accountability. And you guys want buy in. You don’t want us to fight on this. So please help us.”


ANC Third Vice President Joyce Basciano raised concerns with what she called a “seriously flawed” process. She worried that data was gathered in a “highly questionable manner.” She said that equal weight was given to anonymous comments gathered from residents, developers, and students from San Marcos.


Real Estate Agent Frank Herren told the committee that he had a slightly different take.


“I think it’s far more sensible for the current Council to make the decision…. You’re the ones that set this entire thing in motion. You’ve lived with it. You’ve guided the entire process for three years,” said Herren. “I just don’t think it’s the responsible thing to punt to some new Council that will have a steep learning curve. No matter how much they learn, they will not have been there during the process and have a feel for context and for the history.”


Herren said that, in his opinion, the problem was not the timeline, but a refusal to have difficult, necessary conversations about adding population to the city.


“The fact of the matter is, you can’t change Austin’s neighborhoods and have them stay the same simultaneously. We did not have that conversation during Imagine Austin, and we still haven’t had it,” said Herren.


After a long discussion on Monday, the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee agreed to revisit the CodeNEXT process at its next meeting.


That will give the committee time to work out the viability of the so-called “Morrison Amendment,” which would add a step into the process that would explicitly allow the new Council to “adjust or affirm” the approach that the previous Council had voted on in October.


“The fact of the matter is that will cost us money, but the fact of the matter is that is something that needs to be done,” said Morrison. “If it’s going to happen, it might as well happen in an orderly way.”


The committee will also look at the possibility of a focus group, suggested by Cole, which could help start some of the “hard conversations” that will need to take place over things like the McMansion ordinance and compatibility standards. Morrison suggested that more interaction with consultants Opticos Design Inc. might also help bridge the gap between disparate groups like ANC and the Real Estate Council of Austin.


“I feel like there is some trust missing in this community. I saw a paper from a RECA working group, and let me just say that I don’t feel they are on the same page as ANC,” said Morrison.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation committee: an Austin City Council sub-committee charged with, among other concerns, coverage of a set of development and transportation issues.

Austin Neighborhoods Council: The ANC is an organization of representatives of neighborhood associations from around the City of Austin. It's members largely favor neighborhood direction of development policy.

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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