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ZAP calls for CodeNEXT process change

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

With a Land Development Code rewrite well underway and a draft version expected early next year, the city’s land-use commissions are weighing in on how they would like more input. If the Zoning and Platting Commission has its way, there might be some big changes made to the rewrite process, which is known as CodeNEXT. But that remains a very big “if” indeed.

At their most recent meeting, Zoning and Platting commissioners expressed concern that once the draft code was ready for review, it would be too late to have any real say in the rewrite, despite ongoing community conversation about the CodeNEXT process. In an attempt to change that and insert themselves into the current process, commissioners passed a resolution asking city staff and lead consultant Opticos Design to “furnish the Zoning and Platting Commission any and all draft rewrite language on an ongoing continuous basis in legislative format and manner that is a comparative and trackable representation of the old Code versus the new Code.”

Commissioners voted 8-1 to approve the resolution, with Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt voting in opposition. Commissioners Bruce Evans and Yvette Flores were absent.

Honoring their request would be a departure from the CodeNEXT process, which has been underway for several years now.

Alina Carnahan, who is a public information specialist for the Planning and Zoning Department, told the Austin Monitor that the resolution was effectively a “wish list” from the commission. The department would take action on it if City Council opted to pass it, she said.

That shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement, though.

“If, hypothetically, Council decided to pass it, we foresee it having a negative impact on us,” said Carnahan. “We’ve made an intentional decision not to release draft language. That wasn’t part of the process we wanted to do, since it’s a full rewrite.

“It’s not something that lends itself well to line-item edits and showing a before and after,” she explained. “If we put it out piece by piece, it wouldn’t necessarily have a good effect on our timeline either, because we would want to get public input on each piece. … We think it’s going to be much more effective the way we are doing it, with our prescription papers that discuss the big issues and how we are going to address them, then bringing out the draft code in one big piece.”

Matt Lewis, who is the city’s project lead on CodeNEXT, said that the code rewrite is currently in the midst of a series of community conversations around four prescription papers (the first one was released recently, and the remaining will be released in the coming months) in an effort to have high-level conversations that help inform the public about the direction the code rewrite might take.

But Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said she “really isn’t comfortable” with the current approach being taken by CodeNEXT. She said she understands that it might be easier to rewrite the code “without interference from the citizens.” But as a citizen herself, she said, she feels it is “not a transparent process” and that it is also unclear on how public input is being used.

“If we aren’t allowed to see any code at all until it’s a done deal, unfortunately I feel like it will be a done deal,” said Greenberg. “Giving us prescription papers is not really letting us see what is going on.”

Lewis clarified that the draft code will be available for review and that the public process to review the draft “could go on for an additional six months,” or however long boards, commissions and the public need to discuss it.

“The intent is to be transparent. We want to make sure all of the pieces fit together. We don’t want to be an author that wrote a first draft of a book before handing it out,” said Lewis, who pointed out the importance of working out potential conflicts within the document before releasing it.

Lewis told the commission that the process is a logical way to rewrite the code and prevent special interest groups from becoming dismayed over parts of the rewrite without seeing the overall code and its structure. “That’s the main intent,” he said. “To not let interest groups get into this and break down the code prior to the releasing of it.”

Commissioner Jackie Goodman, who authored the resolution, disagreed. Goodman pointed out that the current code was citizen-driven. On the other hand, she said, the perception is that the CodeNEXT process is a “top-down approach to a new code,” and she seemed to suggest that that is not the best approach for the city.

Goodman warned that releasing the code draft at once would result in “a huge delay” while everyone picked it apart and said that it made more sense to do it in pieces.

“We are a planning city. We are a planning people. We are a planning citizenry,” said Goodman. “We aren’t necessarily an unreasonable people, but we are people that insist on being informed.”

Commissioner Susan Harris said she supported the idea of getting the rewrite in “digestible pieces” as it is written. “If that is something that Opticos objects to,” she said, “then maybe we need to rethink Opticos.”

Harris added, “They need to respect the long-established way we have made the sausage.”

During the discussion, Chair Gabriel Rojas tried to figure out how reviewing a future draft in a more iterative way might work. He asked if it was possible to see “final draft pieces,” for example.

According to Lewis, it seemed a tricky proposition. He explained that the CodeNEXT team plans to take pieces from different departments, then take three to four months to combine those individual drafts into a cohesive draft that is expected to be completed in January 2017.

Goodman said the “pain” in the current process is that needed code amendments are on hold, for the most part, as the code rewrite takes place, which has led to a frustrating past three years in some respects.

“Everything that was broken three years ago remains broken,” said Goodman. “This is America. We need the information.”

Photo by woodleywonderworks made available through a Creative Commons license

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