Friday, October 16, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

ADU discussion takes a turn

Though there was some hope that City Council would end its consideration of an accessory dwelling unit ordinance yesterday, it was misplaced.

Council voted unanimously on Thursday to adopt the recommendations of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee, but it did so only on second reading, which means the ordinance will return at least one more time to Council. Council members also voted 7-4 to adopt an amendment put forward by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo stipulating that any ADU constructed after Oct. 1, 2015, may not be used as a short-term rental for more than 30 days. Council members Greg Casar, Sheri Gallo, Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair voted against that amendment.

Apparently, confusion over the role of the Council committee process remains, both for the public at large and within Council itself.

“My sense is that we just need a little bit of a greater distance between the committee reporting and us being able to work through issues,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

At issue on Thursday were several amendments made in committee. Tovo pointed out that the ADU ordinance that came out of the Planning Commission was the result of a long stakeholder process. That ordinance was subsequently modified by the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee, which considered the ordinance three separate times.

Tovo said the ordinance before them had “extremely substantial changes” from the Planning Commission ordinance. Some of those changes, like the decision to reduce lot size and expand the ordinance to be applied citywide, were solidified at the final meeting of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee. Immediately following votes to adopt those changes, public testimony was closed.

Tovo suggested that the process raised larger questions about the Council committee system adopted in March.

Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey echoed those thoughts as well as concern that stakeholders had not been notified about recent committee action.

“I’m not totally comfortable with all of the recommendations that the committee made. … I know that I’ve had some discussions with neighborhood leaders, specifically the president of ANC (Austin Neighborhoods Council) in the last week, and she indicated to me that a lot of her membership was not aware of all of the changes,” said Guernsey. “From a notice standpoint, I’m a little uneasy because the committee process is still new.

“We may have lost some people along the way,” Guernsey continued.

Though Guernsey allowed that a lot of the recommendations that came out of committee “would possibly be OK,” he worried that they hadn’t been vetted with all of the stakeholders. Indeed, there was even confusion on the dais about what the committee-to-Council process is, exactly.

Council Member Leslie Pool expressed her frustration with the process, saying, “I find myself really struggling with all the massive change that is really being proposed here.

“I was prepared to come today to support the changes that the Planning Commission had suggested for accessory dwelling units. That’s what I thought was on the table. I’m not a member of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee,” said Pool. “We haven’t had the input from the public on the changes that came out of the committee, that I think would have been really informative and helpful, so we could really see the impact those changes will have.”

Gallo sits on the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee and was present for the extended discussion of the ordinance over three meetings. But she also recognized that the current process remains confusing.

“The downside of doing all of this in the committees is that the Council members that don’t serve on those committees are not part of the conversation,” said Gallo, who pointed out that the issue at hand was what was most efficient, in terms of time spent before Council.

Because Council members opted to pass the ordinance only on second reading, they will now have time to familiarize themselves with the recommendations and the opportunity to discuss them with stakeholders.

Though Council voted in favor of the recommendations as a whole, several individual recommendations remained sticking points with some members. At various times during the discussion, Council members questioned: a reduction in lot size from 7,000 to 5,750 square feet; inclusion of Single Family-2 zoning; parking requirements; and application of the ordinance citywide, instead of allowing neighborhoods to opt in to the ADU regulations.

Tovo indicated that she would return to third reading armed with an amendment that will address affordability. The undefined amount of time before the item returns to Council will also give staff the opportunity to work out the details of a proposed “preservation bonus” that would help incentivize the preservation of existing buildings on properties.

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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.

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