Thursday, June 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Committee circles accessory dwelling unit changes

The City Council Planning and Neighborhoods Committee took on accessory dwelling units at its Monday meeting. Though members acknowledged they had a lot of work to do on the ADU ordinance, at their most recent meeting they largely steered clear of discussing it, or ADUs in general, and instead focused on what their future discussion will look like.

Council Member Greg Casar, who chairs the committee, suggested they model their actions after the Mobility Committee’s handling of the taxicab franchise issue. That method, said Casar, would allow Council to move forward with amendments to the city code on first reading this month, while giving the committee time to “flesh out” the “particular, defined issues” of ADUs in subsequent meetings.

“Taking on the entirety of ADU reform at one committee meeting — it’s difficult to really home in on the particulars,” said Casar. That suggestion was supported by Casar’s fellow committee members.

Casar also suggested that the committee take up the areas of stakeholder agreement at its August meeting, such as pre-designed, preapproved ADUs; revolving loan guarantees for lower-income Austinites that will help them build ADUs; ways to prevent demolition of ADUs by incentivizing the construction of ADUs; and water utility submetering requirements.

In September, the committee plans to take on the more contentious aspects of the ADU debate. Those include short-term rentals, parking and driveway requirements and how they relate to impervious cover, and lot-size and unit-size regulations.

“I know this has been part of a conversation for well over 12 months now, so I want to show that we have a timeline and we are working on it, but not to rush the issue,” said Casar.

Council Member Sheri Gallo agreed, saying the process had worked well for her as a member of the Mobility Committee. She stressed that public input would be welcome in committee but limited at the Council level.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo offered one note of mild dissent and acknowledged members of the community who thought the ADU amendment should be part of the broader CodeNEXT rewrite of the Land Development Code. She said she would support the recommendations of the Planning Commission, which had worked on the ADU ordinance for the past year.

Tovo said those recommendations were designed to help the city gain more ADUs while steering clear of the more contentious items, like lot size, which “run right up against” some existing neighborhood plans.

“We should really think about whether we want to take on those pieces right now,” said Tovo. “I will argue that this should be done in the context of the Land Development Code rewrite, or we should offer neighborhoods an opportunity to opt-in or opt-out of those tools, as we do with other infill tools.”

Casar said that he did want to discuss those issues in committee. With that in mind, Tovo asked to add discussions about a neighborhood opt-in/opt-out process as well as affordability requirements to the “complicated” September agenda.

Tovo also said she would ask for additional language to ensure ADUs are not built to become short-term rentals. Casar said he would support that type of change and reiterated that they were sending the Planning Commission recommendation to the Council as a “straw man” to be passed on first reading only, with the intention of revising the ordinance down the road.

In June 2014, the previous City Council passed a resolution designed to lighten the barriers to construction of secondary buildings of 500 square feet or less. The ADU ordinance, which has been in progress since then, is the result of that resolution.

At its work session on Tuesday, Council indicated they would most likely postpone the item at its Thursday meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

accessory dwelling units: This term refers to smaller, secondary units built on the property of a primary residence. Also known as ADUs, mother-in-law suites, granny flats, or garden apartments, among other things.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin City Council Planning and Neighborhoods Committee: A City Council committee that reviews neighborhood issues, including neighborhood planning and code issues.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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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