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Unresolved PUD changes spark Council fight

Monday, February 1, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

As has been widely reported by now, civility lost its way at last Thursday’s City Council meeting, culminating with a tweet from Council Member Leslie Pool.

That tweet, since deleted, read, “So maybe this is the nail in Gallo’s coffin.” It was posted as tensions, and subtext, ran high during a heated discussion about proposed changes to the city’s Planned Unit Development Ordinance.

Pool quickly clarified that her tweet was intended to be a private communication to a staffer (bringing the legality of the deletion into question), and Gallo has indicated her disappointment over the whole matter.

But during the discussion of the PUD amendment, a visibly agitated Pool directed some intentionally public comments toward Mayor Steve Adler, who had proposed a last-minute amendment. The proposal would have weakened the existing approval requirements for PUD rezonings, raising the threshold of land-use commission disapproval from a simple majority to a three-fourths majority for both rezonings and zonings on previously unzoned land.

That idea didn’t sit well with Pool, who said the mayor’s amendment should go back to the Planning Commission. She noted that the proposal could have a “transformational impact on this community,” yet had not been seen or discussed by stakeholders.

“Mayor, I think this change that you have offered up tonight is fundamentally explosive, and it blows out of the water all the previous policy that the city of Austin has used with regard to the votes on its land-use commissions and truly dilutes the ability of the community to have a voice in the face of the unlimited resources of the development community,” said Pool.

“I am deeply troubled by this push of yours in particular because there was no posting of this on the (City Council) Message Board for us to see in advance. I think this is a highly cynical move. I do not understand the impetus and the instinct … that brings this to us from you. I thought that this Council was the voice of the neighborhoods and the community and the values of this city, and you here in one document propose to undercut the single tool that our neighbors have in order to ensure our community values,” said Pool. “These are the things that are intrinsic, and you really can’t put a price to them. They’re not profit-driven, but it’s where we live in our hearts and our souls and what makes this city special, and you are taking that and casting it aside.

“I am deeply concerned over this amendment that you have brought to us with no signals in advance, although I get the idea that there were some people in this community who knew full well what was happening here,” she continued. “I don’t have words. I am so stunned and back on my heels by this. I absolutely oppose this. I do not understand where it’s coming from, and I have no more words.”

Adler said he would have no problem sending his proposal through the boards and commissions process but was himself troubled by the original code amendment that came before them.

He also said that he was “concerned about giving six members of a land-use commission the ability to require the Council to have nine votes.” [Editor’s note: A majority of the Planning Commission is actually seven votes.]

Adler added that he was “uncomfortable” with the original ordinance and how it interacted with state law as “one of the ones that goes to the state Legislature to defend the things that we try to get accomplished in this city.”

As the Austin Monitor has reported, the Texas General Land Office has expressed opposition to strengthening requirements for PUDs on unzoned lands, which it says could force it to “avoid the City’s zoning process altogether.”

Adler also took aim at the underlying issue of how the changes could impact zoning for the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD, which faces strong opposition from the Bull Creek Road Coalition, a group that Pool helped create in 2012.

“(I) know that this Grove case is something that is going to be an incredibly hard decision. … I do believe that case is permeating so many of the other things that have come to this Council as surrogates for that, and that makes me uncomfortable,” said Adler. “(I’m) uncomfortable changing the rules in the middle of a process for anybody.”

Though proponents of the PUD Ordinance change have insisted that it is not meant to target the development, the fact remains that the Grove is a proposed PUD on currently unzoned land, and the amendment could impact its zoning. And, as has been the case when the code amendment was considered previously, the bulk of the testimony Thursday was directed at the Grove.

Gallo, who (clearly) also earned Pool’s ire, spoke in support of Adler’s amendment, saying she believed the requirement for both Council and the Planning Commission “should be equal.”

“You either do a simple majority from both, or you do a supermajority from both. But we’ve heard from the community that they wish the Council vote on a controversial zoning PUD case to be supermajority,” said Gallo.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo disagreed and said that Adler’s amendment was “of grave concern” in that it proposed “diluting the control of neighborhood voices.”

In the end, Council approved a change to the ordinance on first reading, with Council members Ann Kitchen and Pool voting in opposition and Council Member Don Zimmerman abstaining.

The amendment to the code is slightly different than the original proposal, which would have required a proposed PUD on unzoned land be approved by a supermajority of Council when it was not recommended by a land-use commission. The new amendment requires a Council supermajority when three-fourths or more of land-use commissioners have voted against PUD zoning on unzoned land. The amendment approved on first reading does not change the process for rezoning.

“At this point, I’m ready to vote against everything,” said Zimmerman.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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