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Testifying on zoning cases can mean waiting for hours – but is that fair?

Monday, December 12, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

Last week, when the contentious case for the Grove at Shoal Creek returned yet again to City Hall, City Council made welcome progress – but not quite when people expected it. Council was supposed to start its discussion at 9 a.m. But as with many high-profile zoning cases, the discussion started hours later and lasted until late at night. One resident, Frances McIntyre, took notice.

“I’m not sure where the general public becomes aware of last-minute changes,” McIntyre said at Tuesday’s meeting. “The agenda still says the Grove hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Council can and should do better than that.”

Just about every corner of the city is experiencing some kind of land development and construction project right now. Often, residents living near those projects are unsure how make their voices heard when it comes to what will be built.

McIntyre, who is with the Austin League of Women Voters, said people haven’t had enough opportunity to testify on the Grove at Council, though many have strong opinions. During Council’s first vote in October, almost no one showed up to speak. The plan before Council was seen as a placeholder, so why waste time commenting on something that wasn’t going to be the final plan? Then, due to the delays on Tuesday, people were unsure when they would need to be at City Hall to speak.

“It’s just a mishmash, and it’s difficult for those people who are interested and want to be heard to know what time to come,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre said the problem isn’t new. In 2012, her group endorsed the change to the 10-1 system of Council representation with the expectation that it would increase civic participation. While participation does appear to be up, McIntyre said, Council needs better tools to accommodate the input people are providing.

She suggested that Council members stick to their posted agendas and communicate schedule changes in advance – but doing so is not always possible.

“The way that the state law works with regard to the posting of agendas and stuff like that – they can’t actually decide until that meeting convenes on Thursday morning that they’re not going to take up an item until after a certain time,” said Jerry Rusthoven of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department.

Rusthoven is referring to a practice, often used at Council meetings, of setting things for a “time certain” – but that terminology can get confusing.

“’Time certain’ – the (term) is a little bit misleading, and sometimes it causes frustration with people,” Rusthoven said. “It doesn’t mean that they will stop everything they’re doing and do something at exactly that time. What it means is that they will not consider an item before that time.”

Nonetheless, there are some improvements on the way. Council has been hearing zoning cases on just one day each month. In January, it will start taking the cases as they come up. Furthermore, zoning items won’t be scheduled before 2 p.m., meaning people won’t have to be at City Hall all morning waiting for their turn to speak.

Photo by Circe Denyer made available through the Public Domain. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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