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Planning Commission assembles CodeNEXT working groups

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

CodeNEXT has a way of inspiring drama, even over as something as mundane as the approval of working groups.

Case in point: Planning Commissioner Patricia Seeger attempted to make a motion on May 9 to approve breaking into three committees to tackle the different components of the draft land-use code: one to analyze the draft map, one to pore over the draft text and one to overview the process as a whole. But before she could get a second, Commissioner Greg Anderson brought everything to a halt.

“(CodeNEXT) was never supposed to be an interpretation, this was supposed to be a calibration,” Anderson said at the meeting. “I just wonder – how far do we let this go where we accept an interpretation of a map, versus challenging these unbelievable consultants to produce what they want to produce?”

The commission, and maybe the whole town, is split when it comes to whether the draft text and map are flawed but fixable, or if the entire process needs a reboot. Commissioner Chito Vela said that splitting the commission into working groups might help them get a better grasp on the code, but that there was no way they could learn as much as the consultants know in the next couple of months.

“That’s why I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for an impossible task. We need a real recommendation from the consultants, not a mirror image, or a translation, or a clean-up, but (actually) how they think Austin should be zoned,” Vela said. “Until we get that from them, I don’t think that we can create that on our own.”

Much like at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting the week before, it became clear as discussion continued that the do-over camp was in the minority. Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza insisted that it was not the role of the Planning Commission, or any commission for that matter, to determine policy. That is strictly the role of City Council, she said.

At the same time, Zaragoza said she recognized that there were some policy decisions that needed to be made immediately in regards to CodeNEXT, like whether or not retaining parts of the old code alongside the new code was a good idea. If those decisions have to wait a year and a half, when the final code draft is slated to go before Council, the drafting process may be doomed to failure, she warned.

Commissioner Fayez Kazi agreed with Zaragoza and said that without working groups to really dive into the material, there would be no way for the commission to know whether or not the current draft map was only a translation.

Invoking some history, Chair Stephen Oliver encouraged commissioners to have some trust in the decisions made back in 2012 when the CodeNEXT process was formulated. “There are reasons why we’re doing these things, and we have to know that it’s for a better outcome,” he said. “We have to know that (this draft) is aligned with our policies.”

Commissioner James Shieh cleared the air as the debate winded down, commenting that the disagreements did not mean everyone was not committed to thoroughly studying the draft. “I think we’re just letting it all out,” he said.

In the end, Shieh seconded Seeger’s original motion to approve the working groups, and the motion passed 10-0-1 with Vela abstaining.

CodeNEXT map courtesy of the city of Austin. Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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