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Austin land use commissions grapple with proposed reforms

Thursday, June 2, 2016 by Jack Craver

The two dozen Austinites who signed up for the thankless task of recommending planning and zoning changes to City Council agree on at least one thing: there has to be a better way.

Members of the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission spent about half an hour Tuesday discussing how they can prevent meetings from going until the wee hours of the morning and how the work between the two commissions could be divided more equally.

Currently, the Planning Commission deals with matters in areas that have neighborhood plans in place, while the Zoning and Platting Commission focuses on the “unplanned” parts of Austin. As neighborhood plans have crept up across more and more of the city, an increasing share of the workload has shifted to the Planning Commission, whose meetings regularly extend past midnight.

Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza admitted that it was hard to focus on many of the big-picture briefings on city planning that often take place only after the panel has dealt with hours’ worth of individual zoning cases.

“By that point,” she said, “my brain is so fried by the minutia of the zoning cases.”

And even though the Zoning and Platting Commission has had fewer marathon sessions, Commissioner Gabriel Rojas, until recently the chair of his commission, agreed that the steady flow of zoning cases meant that “long-term things always kind of get pushed to the side.”

And long meetings are not just an inconvenience for commissioners and city staff. They also discourage regular citizens from participating.

“To expect people to wait from 6 p.m. until midnight or 1 a.m., that’s not a public process,” said Planning Commissioner James Shieh. “It’s more of a stamina thing.”

But agreeing on the problem did not appear to lead to measurable strides toward a solution. Rojas, who served on the Boards and Commissions Taskforce — the group that designed the new system of commissions to accompany the 10-1 Council system — agreed with its conclusions that the Planning Commission should eventually be tasked with the long-term planning policy, while the Zoning and Platting Commission should be left to deal with day-to-day matters including zoning cases, site plans and conditional overlays.

Plenty of others disagreed.

“I think the transactional informs the planning vision,” said Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa.

Zaragoza also noted that zoning cases are often accompanied by a corresponding neighborhood plan amendment. Separating those two would be a “nightmare,” she later told the Austin Monitor.

Unlike Rojas, Zaragoza did not have a concrete proposal for how the two commissions could divide the workload, but suggested that perhaps that was the wrong question. Instead, she said, the city should reconsider how frequently it considers plan amendments. Some cities, she pointed out, put an annual cap on plan changes.

Until fifteen years ago, the city made do with only one land use commission. But as Jerry Rusthoven, a veteran of the Planning and Zoning Department, reminded commissioners, the old Planning Commission met every week, rather than every other week. “That’s not a threat,” he said.

Some held out hope for joint committees, filled by members of both commissions, to take care of much of the work that is currently bedeviling the full commissions. That’s what the former Council envisioned when, in one of its last acts, it voted in December 2014 to authorize two joint committees: the Small Area Planning Joint Committee and the Capital Budget Joint Committee, which replaced the former Bond Oversight Committee. Zoning and Platting Commission members also discussed at length the prospect of creating more joint committees at the commission’s first meetings last year.

But the vision of a robust joint committee system is far from realized, to say the least. While the Small Area Planning Committee has been meeting regularly since last summer, the Capital Budget Committee was abolished by Council last fall after some Council members voiced concerns about not every district being represented on a panel that would play a big role in deciding what parts of the city should get big projects.

However, Council recently voted to authorize two new joint committees, one of which will deal with the comprehensive plan and one with codes and ordinances. Both will be comprised of four members of the Planning Commission and three members of the Zoning and Platting Commission.

As members of both commissions met Tuesday and discussed who wanted to be on what committee, Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver reminded them that City Council expected the joint committees to represent a range geographically as well as professionally, with certain Council members saying they want a good representation of those who work outside of development on committees. That “Council-created problem,” as Oliver (an architect) termed it, would likely make it a challenge to fill the joint committees, he explained. Of the 13 members of the Planning Commission, he said, six to nine of them are not laypeople, depending on how one defines the term.

Rojas, a professional urban planner, said he supports the idea of encouraging professional diversity on the commissions, but suggested there was an even graver bias in planning decisions that often goes ignored. Most Austinites, he pointed out, do not live in single-family homes, but almost all members of the land use commissions do.

“We should probably have a limit, too, on the landowner club,” he said.

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