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Rezoning denial may not matter after CodeNEXT

Friday, September 15, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

When the world (of the current Land Development Code) is coming to an end, a single property zoning decision can seem insignificant. At the Zoning and Platting Commission’s Sept. 5 meeting, commissioners denied what one Northwest Austin community perceived to be a threat to the character of their neighborhood. But commissioners warned the unsuspecting residents that the CodeNEXT tsunami was coming, and that the change they feared would happen to one property could sweep their entire area.

The Summit Oaks Neighborhood Association voiced its opposition to the upzoning of 12101 ½ Conrad Road from single family (SF-2) to family residence (SF-3). Neighbors opposed explained that, to them, it could trigger an influx of duplexes and accessory dwelling units, what are often called types of “missing middle” housing. They feared these smaller units could fracture the single-family cohesion of their tucked-away paradise.

Charles Ford, the owner of the property and the adjacent lot, explained that his application was not in pursuit of some business venture, but that it was a family affair. “It’s basically for my two sons,” he said at the meeting. “I can tell you right now, and I’ll put it in writing, I don’t want a duplex. I’ve never seen a duplex that I liked.”

What Ford said he was open to on the property was an accessory dwelling unit, a housing product that has been a hot topic in CodeNEXT talks. The Strategic Housing Blueprint, adopted by City Council in April, recommended relaxing regulations on ADUs as a way to add to the housing stock without compromising the look and feel of single-family neighborhoods.

“(An ADU) is small, it’s unobtrusive, if it’s done right,” Vice Chair Jim Duncan said. “It’s affordable, and it’s compatible.”

Still, the logic of how these units may help remedy the lack of affordable housing for the city at large did not assuage the concerns of the neighboring residents. “I’m kind of angry about the fact that there’s a potential to see my neighborhood change from a really nice, 60-year-old unique neighborhood (into) multifamily developments,” homeowner John Bolton said.

In 2015, City Council changed the ADU ordinance, dropping the minimum lot size to 5,740 square feet and capping the max square footage at 1,100. One thing that did not change, however, was the prohibition of these units in properties zoned single family (SF-2).

“I thought that (decision) was very problematic,” Chair Jolene Kiolbassa said. “It didn’t make sense that the properties that were larger were exempted from (allowing) ADUs.”

Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said that she sympathized with the Summit Oaks neighborhood and that she considered this a case of spot zoning, despite case manager Sherri Sirwaitis’ assurances that this rezoning would not set a precedent for the area. At the same time, she let residents in attendance know that it was likely that under CodeNEXT ADUs and duplexes would be permitted where they lived. Duncan agreed.

“I wish this (zoning case) was next year, because I think the discussion then would be the entire neighborhood, and this wouldn’t be an exception type thing,” he said.

The fact of the matter was, however, that the case was being heard in 2017, and though some commissioners tried to suggest CodeNEXT-like conditions for their recommendation, Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt said it was not the right time. “We’re trying to solve this issue with tools that we don’t really have for this zoning case,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate to try to change the size or scope of ADUs when we already have a city code for that.”

Commissioner Sunil Lavani made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation, seconded by Commissioner Bruce Evans. Commissioner Ann Denkler made a substitute motion to recommend SF-3 but with the condition that duplexes would not be allowed and the owner would have to provide on-site parking for an ADU if constructed. Lavani seconded, but the substitute motion failed 5-6.

The main motion also failed 4-7, with Lavani, Evans, Breithaupt, and Commissioner Stephanie Trinh in the affirmative.

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

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