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Thursday, September 21, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

CodeNEXT 2.0 is here, but supplemental materials are missing

At the Sept. 19 joint land use commissions meeting, the dazzling presentations detailing the new aspects of the second CodeNEXT draft could not overshadow supplemental information that was missing. Commissioners expressed frustration with city staff and consultants who they said had not followed through on prior requests for supportive data.

The Planning and Zoning and Platting commissions will make their final recommendations on CodeNEXT before it heads to City Council for a vote next year. According to the city charter, as reaffirmed by a Council resolution passed in June, the Planning Commission is the only body that must submit a recommendation for the process to move forward. Nevertheless, the commissions have worked in tandem since the first draft was released last January, holding joint work sessions at least once a month to parse through the dense first draft of the new land use code.

Even after also meeting every fifth Tuesday (normally their week off) and making other sacrifices to spend more time digging into the code, commissioners have consistently complained that they cannot keep up with the fast pace set by the drafters. Both commissions have asked for tools to help them make sense of the text and maps, and more importantly to help them explain CodeNEXT to the public, but the consultants and staff came up empty-handed this week.

Recognizing the incredible workloads of the drafters, Planning Chair Stephen Oliver asked them by the same token to recognize the limited capacity of the public to digest CodeNEXT without additional resources to help them. Specifically, the commissions have previously asked for a summary of public comments on the first draft, the criteria used to design the draft two map, and derivative tables showing what had changed between the two drafts.

The CodeNEXT draft has received over 4,000 public comments so far, and Opticos Design consultant John Miki said that the drafters did have a system in place for sorting and incorporating that input. He said that it would be fairly easy to summarize the comments that were made on chapters other than the zoning chapter (23-4) of the text, where the bulk of feedback had been directed.

Oliver said he understood the challenge, but that if there wasn’t some sort of response to comments on the zoning chapter it might lead to the perception that public opinion was falling into a “black hole.”

Other commissioners said that a good starting point would be for drafters to respond to commissioners’ questions. Zoning and Platting Commissioner Ann Denkler said that there had been difficulties with communication from the get-go. “I want to know that as we’re going along, we can get answers,” she said.

Zoning and Platting Commissioner Betsy Greenberg agreed. “As far as I know, many of the questions we submitted for draft one were never answered,” she said. “They may have been paid attention to in some way, but we really need answers.”

“We’ll certainly do our best to answer those questions,” said Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey.

The commissions only have two months before the third draft is published on Nov. 28, with the final commission recommendations due in January. Oliver proposed, informally, that a special work session night be scheduled in the next few weeks where commissioners could split up into several rooms at City Hall to meet with the public about all the CodeNEXT topics outside of the zoning chapter. He said that getting those issues out of the way would allow the commissioners to focus all of their attention on the zoning chapter with the time they had left.

“I challenge all of (you) to become as much of an expert as you can,” Oliver said. “If you’re not doing anything that’s not good enough.”

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.

City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. 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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