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Longtime Austin activists team up to petition for a public vote on CodeNEXT

Friday, September 22, 2017 by Kate Groetzinger

On the eve of the release of the second draft of CodeNEXT, longtime Austin activists Fred Lewis and Linda Curtis threw the city a curveball related to the Land Development Code rewrite: a petition that, if successful, would put the final version of CodeNEXT to a public vote.

Curtis, who now lives in Bastrop, led the petition campaign to implement Austin’s current 10-1 City Council system in 2012. Now, she’s hoping to force the city to put CodeNEXT to a public vote. Curtis pulled up to City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 14, with a camper full of equipment to hold a press conference announcing the new petition. She gathered a small group of supporters around her on the building’s east side while her assistant set up a PA system. Julie Nitsch, who is serving as communications director for the group, spoke first, introducing it as IndyAustin. Curtis filed a specific-purpose political action committee under that name with the city on Sept. 8.

Also in attendance was Lewis, who filed his own specific-purpose PAC under the name Let Us Vote Austin on Sept. 14. Lewis, who authored the petition, heads an advocacy group called Community Not Commodity. He said he plans to operate Let Us Vote Austin as a separate entity, dedicated to raising support for the petition.

“Really, it’s kind of simple, because CodeNEXT is not at all simple,” Curtis said about the reasoning behind the petition. She said she believes putting CodeNEXT to a public vote would force groups on both sides of the debate over what goes into the code rewrite to campaign and explain their positions to residents. Currently, the debate is made up of groups including Evolve and AURA, which largely promote density and development in Central Austin in the form of apartment complexes and “missing middle” housing, on one side and, on the other side, groups including Austin Neighborhoods Council and Community Not Commodity, which are largely opposed to increasing the density in Central Austin and support a code that would protect existing single-family neighborhoods.

“Here’s our theory: if you put it on the ballot it will cause a big debate such that you might have a chance of informing a lot more people,” Curtis said about CodeNEXT.

Curtis said she is not taking a position on what actually goes into the new code, despite being closely allied with Lewis in her effort to drum up support and signatures for the petition. Rather, the petition is a response to what she said has been an opaque process that has left many who would be affected by the new code in the dark.

“If you go out on the street right now and find a regular Austinite who is just trying to pay their mortgage or rent, they’ll go: ‘Code what?’” Curtis said.

Lewis, who recently led a rewrite of the city’s lobbying ordinance, is staunchly against changes to the code that would make it easier to increase the density in Central Austin. Members of his group, Community Not Commodity, weighed in on the first draft of the code with suggestions that would protect single-family homes in Central Austin and limit the construction of missing middle housing in Central Austin neighborhoods. But, like Curtis, he said that the petition to put the code to a vote is about democracy, not about getting the changes in the code that he and Community Not Commodity want.

“I frankly don’t think the city listens to anybody’s comments. They certainly don’t listen to ours. That’s one of the reasons we need a vote. City staff has an agenda,” Lewis said.

The petition is likely to find support from members of Austin Neighborhoods Council, which includes almost 100 Austin neighborhood associations.

“I have a feeling the neighborhood people will be very interested in this petition because the code is dreadful and the city staff does all this stuff in secret, and they changed everything in the latest draft creating confusion on purpose,” ANC President Mary Ingle said.

Evolve and AURA both openly oppose the petition to put the code rewrite to a public vote. Josiah Stevenson, who is a board member of AURA and the chair of its CodeNEXT working group, said he believes the petition is meant to slow or stop the passage of a new code in an effort to maintain the status quo.

“Housing delayed is housing denied,” Stevenson said. “We have an acute housing shortage right now, and we need to build enough homes for the people coming, whether we like it or not.”

Scott Turner, a longtime Austin residential developer and member of Evolve, said that he is not happy with the CodeNEXT public engagement process, but he opposes the petition nonetheless. Turner said he submitted the highest number of comments on the code, and that he did not see many of his suggestions reflected in the new draft.

“One of our main goals is simplification. This round, the code is 200 to 300 pages longer than the first one, and we are concerned about that. It seems like we took two steps forward and two steps back,” Turner said.

Mayor Steve Adler also said that he opposes efforts to slow down the rewrite process, which he said has been as open and inclusive as possible.

“I’m not sure that there’s ever been a city process in which there has been this much active community involvement. I’ve been to meetings all over the city at which hundreds of people have attended. Thousands of comments have been brought to city staff and consultants,” he said.

He also doesn’t believe a public vote is necessary to get people involved.

“I’m not overly concerned about parts of the city not actively getting involved. I think that choice is being made because they aren’t worried about change,” he said.

Opponents raised questions over the legality of the petition, as well as over a payment of $5,000 from Billy Reagan of Reagan Outdoor Advertising to Curtis’ IndyAustin, which is running a sign ordinance petition to allow digital billboards in Austin and a Right to Referendum petition alongside the CodeNEXT petition.

“Yes, Billy has given us money, and I hope he gives us more. He hasn’t said you can’t spend this on CodeNEXT, and petitions are more efficient when you do them together,” she said.

Forcing a public referendum on CodeNEXT will not be an easy task. In order to get the code on the ballot, Curtis and Lewis must first collect 20,000 signatures from registered Austin voters. This would prompt a special election on the next available municipal election day, in which voters would vote on whether or not they support requiring public approval on the final version of CodeNEXT. If voters say yes, the final version of the code rewrite would appear on the ballot for voter approval in the next municipal election.

As of now, Curtis said she is hoping to collect enough signatures to submit the petition to the city clerk in late January or early February, ensuring that it triggers a special election in May, similar to the Lyft/Uber special election in 2015. If voters approve the measure to put CodeNEXT to a vote in May, it will appear on the ballot in the general election in November, given that a final version of CodeNEXT is ready by then.

This timeline conflicts with Council’s plan to vote on the code in April. City staff could not confirm whether or not the petition, if submitted in early 2018, would carry enough legal force to hold up Council’s vote on the code. Both Lewis and Curtis said they are not worried about the conflicting timelines, given the delays that have already held up the CodeNEXT process by over a year, and that they plan to move forward with the petition no matter what Council decides to do.

While Curtis refused to disclose the number of signatures the petition has received so far, she said the IndyAustin website crashed due to unexpectedly high traffic on Tuesday.

“Linda Curtis has never failed to get something that she’s worked on on the ballot, and neither have I,” Lewis said.

Photo: Linda Curtis, speaks at a press conference held to introduce her new PAC and CodeNEXT petition by Kate Groetzinger.

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