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Zoning lesson raises questions for new Council

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

With single-member districts up and running, myriad changes are on the horizon at City Hall. Tuesday, some clues about how city staff will tackle the nuts-and-bolts of the transition emerged in what was a largely uneventful mock City Council meeting.

As part of Council’s ongoing orientation, Planning and Development Review Department director Greg Guernsey explained the fundamentals of zoning in Austin to the new Council. He told Council members that zoning might be their most important job — and considering there were 290 cases last year, it’s likely to be their most time-consuming.

Initially, Guernsey said that Council members would be notified of cases in their districts “if they lived within 500 feet of the zoning case.” This, of course, is true of anyone living within the City of Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler suggested that Council members could be added to that notification process. That would give them time to get familiar with the case before it went through the boards and commissions process.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and add that,” said Adler. “In addition to the people within 500 feet.”

“We can do that,” said Guernsey.

Otherwise, Guernsey said that district information would be included in the backup documents. The district, he said, would be included in the staff report that is completed for all zoning cases. Though this is a change, that report does not reach Council until it has been placed on its agenda.

Guernsey also told Council members that they will become familiar with zoning case managers, who oversee distinct areas of the city. While those areas will overlap the districts, Guernsey said that the case manager they will be dealing with within their districts will most likely be the same.

“You won’t be getting some random case manager from month to month, because they are done by geographic areas,” said Guernsey. “You will be working with the same group of zoning case managers.”

From now on, cases that have a valid petition against them and cases that amend the Save Our Springs Ordinance will require a supermajority of nine votes (not, as was previously the case, six).

Though Guernsey was presenting the basics of zoning, there was limited time for questions from Council members.

Council Member Don Zimmerman asked for information on any current lawsuits over Council zoning decisions.

Council Member Sherri Gallo cited concerns with Traffic Impact Analyses performed by the city, saying she would like to better understand the process.

“The concern seems to be that the analysis that is done for the proposed new development doesn’t really accurately reflect what the population senses the impact will be,” said Gallo.

Council Member Ora Houston thanked Guernsey for the presentation, then promptly put it into a historical context.

“I think it’s important for me to say that one of the other zonings that happened was the 1928 Comprehensive Plan that we never talk about,” said Houston. “Because of that zoning, we are still having the vestiges now in parts of our city. Light industrial and commercial was all put east of I-35. … We did not have the opportunity to have deed restrictions on our homes or [protections] on our communities. So it’s been pretty easy for people to come and begin to replace homes with other kinds of living arrangements or businesses.”

Houston also spoke about the importance of distributing affordable housing throughout the city.

“I want us always to consider all of those things when we are making decisions about zoning,” said Houston.

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