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Environmental Democrats hear Riley, Tovo, but make no endorsement

Thursday, August 7, 2014 by Gene Davis

In front of Wednesday’s standing-room only crowd at the Austin Environmental Democrats forum, micro houses– so-called “granny flats” – proved a defining issue between Council members and District 9 candidates Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley. However, neither of them was able to secure the 60 percent majority needed to win the group’s endorsement.

Both Riley and Tovo have worked with and enjoyed support from environmentalists over the years. Hence, it was not surprising that Riley got 53.6 percent and Tovo got 46.4 percent of the votes of those participating. That is not to say that they have identical visions for Austin’s future.

Riley is a primary supporter of a code amendment to loosen restrictions to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units of 500 square feet or less. Tovo voted in June against Riley’s resolution in support of removing restrictions to the construction of accessory units.

But rather than rehashing arguments, the granny flat issue let the candidates share their views about how the City should handle density and infill. Riley said granny flats are part of his philosophy that Austinites should live closer, live smaller and drive less.

Although the City allows granny flats in certain situations, such as when a lot is 7,000 square feet or more, Riley said there are too many restrictions under current City Code. In particular, he said the City’s requirement that houses with an accessory dwelling unit have at least four parking spaces is an onerous requirement, especially in areas where there is plenty of on-street parking.

“I just think that’s the wrong direction for our city, and I think that’s very auto-centric,” he said.

In response, Tovo said Riley’s approach is not contextual and does not consider neighborhood groups. She suggested that the City could make looser accessory dwelling unit requirements an option for neighborhoods to adopt within their neighborhood plans.

“I believe these things should happen in accordance with neighborhood plans, and I think code changes should happen in accordance with Imagine Austin, and not be sort of edicts on high from Council,” she said. “They should come through the planning process, as we promised the neighborhoods.”

However, Riley argued that accessory dwelling units would be a boon to neighborhood residents, as it would provide them a possible additional revenue stream while also creating more affordable housing in Austin.

Accessory dwelling units “generally will be a lot more sustainable than pushing development outward where infrastructure will be much more expensive,” he said.

Tovo and Riley were at the Austin Environmental Democrats forum in the hopes of securing an endorsement from the group. The group endorses candidates that receive at least 60 percent of members’ votes. Riley received 53.6 percent and Tovo received 46.4 percent of the vote, so neither secured the endorsement.

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