Tuesday, December 6, 2016 by Joseph Caterine

Land use commissions scramble to prepare for CodeNEXT draft release

Apprehension was in the air as representatives of the CodeNEXT team, led by Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey, addressed the joint meeting of the Planning and Zoning and Platting commissions on Nov. 29.

“The fact that we’re here, and it’s almost December, and there’s so much we don’t know know, makes us the most uninformed public officials out there,” Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver said at the meeting.

The city’s land use commissions will bear the bulk of responsibility in scrutinizing the new code — second only to City Council — and the first time they will see a draft will be on Jan. 30, now less than two months away.

“If we’re not starting from the same page in January, we’ll never be on the same page again,” Oliver said.

These commissions are used to running behind schedule, typically having only a few days before a meeting to review items on that week’s agenda. Zoning and Platting Chair Thomas Weber joked during the presentation that in all likelihood, the commission will get the final draft of CodeNEXT the Friday before it has to make a decision on it.

Peter Park, one of the CodeNEXT consultants, admitted that this process will require commissioners to embrace their inner MacGyver.

“It’s ambitious,” he said. “I’m not going to lie about that.”

The presentation centered on the mapping component of CodeNEXT, which Guernsey likened to a “gigantic rezoning case.” He conceded that most presentations up to this point have focused on the text of the new code, whereas mapping received less attention. The draft zoning map will be released a few months after the draft text, with the goal of having it out April 18.

“Mapping is a really daunting task,” Guernsey said. “We may end up with more Council zoning districts than we have now.”

Jorge Rousselin, acting division manager of the Planning and Zoning Department, did not want to make a false impression that the mapping had been worked out, but he reassured the commissioners that they will be provided with information along the way prior to the draft map release.

“You’ll see a lot of illustrative examples,” he said, “and start to get a sense of how these tools can be applied to actual physical places.”

Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said she was skeptical about the proposed deadlines. Considering that neighborhood planning often takes several months at best, she did not understand how the CodeNEXT team could map the entire city in half that time.

“I can’t wrap my mind around this timeline,” she said.

Park said that all hands will be on deck from Planning and Zoning and that they are confident that the finished product will live up to expectations.

Other commissioners had concerns about transparency and public accountability. Planning Commissioner Tom Nuckols suggested that a disposition table be provided that will track each provision of the code and note whether it will be updated, kept the same or deleted.

“There will be something like that, but not for every single thing,” Park said. “After all, CodeNEXT is not an update, it’s a reconstruction.”

Planning Commissioner Karen McGraw encouraged the CodeNEXT team to go beyond collecting written input as the only means of public engagement. “How do we build support?” she asked.

In response, Rousselin said that the CodeNEXT team has a wide tool set for reaching the public and that they intend to categorize the results in a way that is accessible for everyone.

After the discussion was over, members of the two commissions agreed to prioritize inviting representatives of the CodeNEXT team to one more of their respective meetings before the draft text is released at the end of January.

“We’re all going to put in a lion’s share of effort,” Oliver said.

This story has been corrected since publication. The mapping could lead to more zoning districts, not City Council districts.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

Zoning and Platting Commission

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