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Land Use Commissions look for more cooperation

Friday, July 31, 2015 by Jack Craver

What does the overhaul of municipal commissions mean for the future of city planning in Austin?

Those involved in development policy at City Hall hope that a larger City Council, which has led to more appointees to both the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission, will ease the burden on individual commissioners by allowing the workload to be divided among more members.

And, for the first time ever, the Zoning and Platting Commission is appointing members jointly with the Planning Commission to examine certain areas of development. Council has approved two joint Zoning and Platting and Planning Commission committees – the Small Area Planning Joint Committee and the Joint Sustainability Committee – but both commissions can propose creating additional ones to Council.

“We have a lot more opportunities for volunteers to dig into certain areas on these committees,” Zoning and Platting Chair Gabriel Rojas told the Austin Monitor.

Rojas also hopes that having the two commissions work together will result in more consistency in development decisions, as well as a more coherent vision of the city’s planning goals. Currently, he said, commissioners on each panel are “only getting one half of the view of the city.”

“The new system helps implement Imagine Austin,” he added. “Finally, for the first time, we’ll have a complete picture of the city.”

Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver agrees.

“When we’re trying to be aware and consistent in how we apply our policies and the goals of Imagine Austin down to the microlevel of individual cases, the more dialogue and the more contact between (Zoning and Platting) and PC, I think the better ideas we’ll have of what the common trends are,” Oliver said.

But that of course leads to another question: Why are the two land planning commissions separate to begin with?

They didn’t used to be. Zoning and Platting Vice Chair Jackie Goodman led the effort as a Council member 15 years ago to create the Zoning and Platting Commission, which focuses exclusively on planning in parts of the city that aren’t covered by neighborhood plans. She framed the decision as a way to “double” the city’s planning capabilities, rather than to divide them.

Although Goodman believes the decision has largely worked out well, she thinks the city should consider redefining the commission’s duties to shift more work to Zoning and Planning commissioners, whose caseload has steadily declined as neighborhood plans have popped up throughout Austin. As a result, Planning Commission meetings often stretch past midnight, while ZAP often adjourns after less than an hour of work.

“Joint committees are going to be able to work that out and recommend to Council on how to redivide (the work),” Goodman said. “I wouldn’t want to say I have an idea that’s an easy fix. But it might be (apparent) when you talk about it.”

Both Rojas and Oliver floated the idea that one commission could deal with day-to-day zoning cases while another could focus on long-term planning issues.

The bright new day for city planning will nevertheless involve some headaches. At their meeting last week, Zoning and Platting commissioners couldn’t figure out how to choose who would serve on a new joint committee because there were four commissioners interested in the three open spots. While Rojas finally chose the three members (including himself) on his own, the city law department later notified the commission that that decision was not valid, since it wasn’t approved by a vote of the full commission.

Oliver warned his colleagues of such snafus at a Tuesday meeting of the Planning Commission, saying that he hoped the limited number of seats on joint committees would not lead to fights over coveted appointments.

“We need to find a way to make all of these joint committees work,” he said. “That’s a totally different dynamic than we had before.”

Furthermore, the Planning Commission has to decide which of its existing subcommittees, if any, it should keep in light of the newly formed joint committees.

Oliver said there may be some initial redundancy between committees as he and others try to figure out what to keep around.

“We need to make sure we’re still covering the bases, so we don’t prematurely cut out a subcommittee,” he said.

For instance, while the two commissions are figuring out whom to appoint to the joint committees, the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee has a burgeoning caseload to address immediately, city staff warned at the Tuesday commission meeting.

The commission thus decided to accept volunteers to the existing committee, but discussions about possibly creating a similar joint committee with Zoning and Platting had commissioners concerned that some of those currently participating in that process would be denied spots on the joint committee.

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