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Murky CodeNEXT process raises eyebrows at Planning Commission

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

This month, the city will hold events designed to test aspects of the ongoing CodeNEXT Land Development Code rewrite, and last week some Planning commissioners were concerned that they were unprepared for the exercise.

The events, called “Sound Check,” will take place Nov. 16-21 and feature open studio hours, speakers and even live music, with themed days to address particular aspects of the code. Participants will take draft development standards – based on form-based code – on hypothetical test runs by applying them to parts of the city to see what happens. The idea is to find bugs and conflicts before the draft code goes up for public review and city adoption. The workshops will also feature metrics that lay out the characteristics of those standards.

Despite the festive plans for the workshop, at the last meeting of the Planning Commission, commissioners expressed concerns about the process. Specifically, they questioned why the draft standards and metrics were not yet available to them.

“It just feels like we are in the dark, and we will continue to be in the dark, and we will get a quick look at a hypothetical in a couple of weeks and then continue to be in the dark again,” said Commissioner Fayez Kazi.

Jim Robertson, who works in the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, tried to allay those fears and explained that the public process would be ongoing. Robertson said that city staff and consultants were working to “pull together multiple threads from different sources” at the moment but that the feedback process would continue once drafts were released.

“If I were sitting in your shoes, I would probably be having the same reaction,” said Robertson.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said she was frustrated that, three weeks before the Sound Check event, no one had been able to preview the metrics and development standards that currently exist in what she called a “nebulous universe.”

“I feel that it’s a real missed opportunity. I think there was an opportunity before the Sound Check for the community to weigh in, for the CAG (CodeNEXT Advisory Group) to weigh in, for the Planning Commission to weigh in, and that has not been able to happen,” said Zaragoza, who pointed out that if people were unhappy with what was unveiled at the Sound Check, “there isn’t a lot of recourse.”

Robertson assured Zaragoza that it would not be the only opportunity to review the metrics and standards. He explained that, once they had a public draft of the code – which is expected to be ready in the second half of 2016 – “the whole code will be laid out for anybody to see.” He said that, though it was not yet scheduled, he hoped to hold another event like Sound Check.

Chair Stephen Oliver highlighted some of his own fears, which, he said, he “hoped would lead to opportunities.” He said that when he served on the CAG, the group made clear that it wanted to see the metrics before the public meeting and was promised that it would. “When we were told we would see the metrics to help alleviate suspicions, concerns (that) we’re punting conversations down the road to a later date, and the tough topics just won’t get tackled – this fuels that fire of conversation.”

Robertson said he wasn’t aware that it was a firm commitment. On Monday, he told the Austin Monitor that the Planning Commission had been given copies of the draft matrix in advance of Sound Check, but he stressed that they were not complete.

Speaking to the Monitor, Robertson said that a draft ready for city staff review should be available in spring 2016 and that after that review, a public draft would be made available in fall 2016.

“That’s when we’ll do a whole bunch of different outreach and have all kinds of events and ways of hopefully having people understand the code and let them weigh in on it,” said Robertson, who added that the process would last as long as needed, based on public feedback.

“We’re hoping a lot of folks show up to the workshop to give us feedback,” said Robertson.

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