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Planning Commissioners vote to expand powers

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last night, the Planning Commission made clear its power in regard to connectivity and subdivisions. It opted to keep recently controversial code language as-is, and instead offered up a new interpretation of that code.

Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of an interpretation of 25-4-151 that will allow the commission discretion to depart from street connectivity in subdivisions. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.

Their interpretation stood in opposition to city legal’s reading of the code, which is that the commission does not have the discretion to reject subdivision plats when it disagrees with the connectivity proposed, except in cases in which a subdivision fails to include connections.

Development Services Department Assistant Director George Adams said he hoped the commission understood the implications of not having a complete streets network and suggested it make the change in interpretation in a more holistic context.

“This is a very important issue to the idea of city building,” said Adams. “I would strongly recommend that if the goal is to move in the direction of providing discretion on this issue, you do that in a very measured way in terms of understanding the consequences. … If the goal is to clarify without dispute that you have this ability, then so be it, but there are a lot of details wrapped up in this.”

Adams explained that, for example, a situation could arise in which denying a compliant preliminary subdivision with connectivity would force the developer to pursue a variance that would exempt it from complying with city code.

“That’s not a good situation for anyone. It turns what is already a confusing situation into an extremely confusing situation,” said Adams.

Commissioners further directed staff to provide a list of ordinances that conflicted with their new interpretation. They clarified that if there was disagreement with their new interpretation, staff should bring alternate language forward through the city’s formal code amendment process.

Additionally, the Planning Commission will explore, in the future, whether it will need procedural changes to implement the revision. Commissioners and city staff will also start to work on a comprehensive connectivity plan for the city.

Commissioner James Nortey made the motion for the interpretation, saying that he was advocating a “plain-language interpretation.”

“Generally, the Planning Commission does have wide discretion, except where state law says we do not. It’s never been clear to me, here, why we would limit that discretion,” said Nortey.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver spoke to the need for a broader look at connectivity across the city and the importance of having a way to put individual decisions about connectivity into context. He explained that, without that larger context, it made it hard to argue a larger benefit when nearby neighbors opposed connectivity in a specific project.

Several Austinites who first brought the code language forward for more scrutiny spoke at the meeting in favor of the increased discretion.

These proponents included Jeff Rowe, who thanked commissioners for the new interpretation.

“You are kind of like the guardrail to this whole process,” said Rowe. “And when staff kind of goes over the edge, this is one tool you have in your toolkit to say, ‘Wait a second here,’ and take a pause and allow reason.”

By Augustus Koch (1840-?). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


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