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Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

CodeNEXT divides commission, spurs review of recommendation process

No city commission has been as prolific in its criticism of CodeNEXT than the Zoning and Platting Commission, and the commission fired off another letter of recommendation at its July 18 meeting in an effort to get feedback in before the release of draft 2.0 in September. After half a year of intense scrutiny over the new land use code, however, the commission’s unity has started to show signs of wear.

The commissioners haven’t always agreed about the specifics of their letters to the consultants and staff working on CodeNEXT, but they have always reached consensus and voted unanimously in approval. At least, until last week.

Commissioners Stephanie Trinh and Bruce Evans, the loudest voices of dissent during the letter’s review, said that regardless of the content, they opposed the manner in which the recommendation was drafted.

“This was the third time that I felt like something was being brought up to me last minute,” Trinh told the Austin Monitor. “I brought it up last time we passed a resolution, too. The process could have been more inclusive.”

Evans said that commissioners should have time to study the content of any recommendation before having to weigh in on it, otherwise deliberation suffers. “I think it’s unacceptable,” he told the Monitor.

The officers of the commission, spearheaded by Chair Jolene Kiolbassa, have taken the lead in drafting the commission’s letters before meetings with the expectation that tweaks could be made to word choice when the item came up. This arrangement has allowed the commission to churn out multiple CodeNEXT letters since the draft’s release in January. “I’ll admit, it’s a scattershot approach,” Kiolbassa said at the meeting.

This methodology, as efficient as it has been, may have come at the expense of other commissioners feeling out of the loop and pressured into conforming in the name of unity. “The chair and I may have been trying to reach consensus a little too hard,” Vice Chair Jim Duncan told the Monitor.

Zoning and Platting’s productivity has also evoked a response from City Council, who passed a resolution last month that reiterated the city charter’s mandate that the drafting process will only require a recommendation from the Planning Commission next January before Council can proceed with its own review of the draft land use code. In a slip of the tongue at the June 22 meeting, Council Member Alison Alter admitted that the point was being clarified to ensure that the Zoning and Platting Commission would not be able to “hold the process hostage.”

Duncan told the Monitor that the Council resolution seemed to cherry-pick the charter’s provisions, pointing to a familiar point of contention — that Article X also states that at least two-thirds of the Planning Commission’s membership should not be “directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development” when he believes that is not presently the case.

Although it has been slightly more antagonistic than other commissions (like calling for a delay of the map release), the Zoning and Platting Commission has nevertheless stayed on schedule. Unlike the Planning Commission, it submitted a letter of recommendation by the original deadline of June 7, making this latest letter its second response to the first draft.

Despite the criticism of the letter-making process, Kiolbassa and Commissioner Betsy Greenberg were able to negotiate the cutting of a few paragraphs of the first draft, including ones relating to floor area ratio limits, setbacks and compatibility, but reiterated the commission’s previously stated position that there should be one set of zones rather than three (the new form-based, the new use-based and the old code) and also called for consultants and staff to make an effort to curb the trend of displacement.

Greenberg motioned to approve the letter, seconded by Duncan, and when the edits to the letter were finalized the motion passed 7-2, with Trinh and Evans dissenting. Commissioner Sunil Lavani left the chamber before the question was called.

Since the meeting, Evans has asked that an item be put on the agenda to scrutinize the commission’s rules and bylaws, including how the commission should draft resolutions.

Update: Following publication, Alter reached out to the Monitor to clarify her statement and the intent of her resolution. In an email, she wrote, “I do not believe that ZAP should or would hold the process hostage. However, in an effort to allay staff concerns, the final text of the resolution was changed. My statement was intended to point out why the dates were added, to explain that I did not share those concerns, and to affirm that this improved process would not have a delaying effect on adoption of CodeNEXT… The main purpose of the June 22 resolution was to affirm the important role that both the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission must play in the CodeNEXT process and to create an additional opportunity for these land use commissions to review CodeNEXT before a draft comes to Council.”

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

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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.

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