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Council seeks robust feedback on first CodeNEXT draft

Thursday, January 12, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council and the other groups involved in completing and implementing CodeNEXT – the multiyear process of rewriting the city’s Land Development Code – got a hard look Wednesday at how citizens will be able to review and give feedback on plans for Austin’s future growth.

The joint meeting between Council and the 18-member Code Advisory Group locked in the schedule for rollout of the first draft of the text version on Feb. 1 and a draft map of the reimagined city, which is due April 18.

Those timelines had been set for a while, but now the city government has a plan for the surveys, community forums and online tools that will be used to let residents explore the changes expected to occur around the city after the final version of the plan is adopted in early 2018. Though some of the tools that will be used for public feedback are still being finalized, Wednesday’s session and its resulting adjustments to the plan give the city and its consultants what amounts to a syllabus for the rollout of one of the most important documents for Austin’s future.

Council members several times made a show of expressing their concern about getting the maximum possible amount of public feedback from as many geographic and economic cross sections as possible.

As an example, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said the differing characteristics of some neighborhoods in her district would likely require multiple public forums, with some possibly including residents from some adjoining districts that have more in common with them than other parts of District 7.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told city staff and staff from Opticos Design Inc., the California firm hired to help with the rewrite, that he’s most concerned with the number of people engaged in the feedback process than the number of meetings held so newcomers to planning and zoning issues can get educated on the process.

“I don’t want this to get out of control and I know there’s an issue of limited resources, but in all likelihood, less than 10 percent of the city has any knowledge about planning and zoning,” he said. “We need to ask, are we representing only the people who know this stuff, or are we representing our whole district?”

The menu of educational and communication options that will be used once the draft document is delivered next month is robust, with position papers, explanatory videos, surveys, an online commenting tool created for civic projects and a “toolkit” of explanatory diagrams and information made for easy distribution.

John Miki, an associate with Opticos, stressed to Council and CAG members that all feedback gathered on the draft text and map documents will be considered in the creation of a revision to both, which will be delivered in August.

“This is a way of determining which (planning) tool can best implement the policy you have on the ground right now,” he said. “Maybe we need to tweak something that’s already out there, or maybe we need a whole new zoning district because of the patterns we see.”

Miki’s thoughts were in part a response to concerns from multiple Council members about how user-friendly and clearly written the final document will be. Council members pointed out instances of conflicting language on some use cases that they said the current code is littered with.

Other Council members asked for a detailed cross-reference appendix to the document at line-level detail pointing to sections that impacted various zoning and use classes, but Opticos representatives and Planning and Zoning Department staff said that would likely add an expensive and unnecessary layer of detail to what is supposed to be a lean and relatively intuitive resource.

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said the process of creating a new development code has already been politically charged in her district and that many residents are ready to take a combative stance if given any opportunity.

“There are lots of pocket(s) and neighborhoods that get very activated over zoning issues,” she said. “It’s a great idea to take the existing policy and show what we’re changing, but if we can drill on the details as much as possible now, it will be to our benefit.”

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