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Wednesday, October 18, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

Environmental Commission stalls on CodeNEXT 2.0

CodeNEXT once again took center stage at a meeting of the Environmental Commission earlier this month, when commissioners refrained from recommending the second draft of the Land Development Code rewrite, with a hope that they would have comments prepared just after the Halloween deadline, at the beginning of November.

Jerry Rusthoven, the assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department, and Matt Hollon, the environmental conservation program manager of the Watershed Protection Department, presented the second draft of the rewrite to the Environmental Commission for feedback on Oct. 4. The third draft is expected to be completed on Nov. 28.

Although the commissioners were wary of this timeline uncompromisingly pushing ahead, Commissioner Pam Thompson viewed the overall presentation on a high note saying, “It’s moving quickly and changing a lot. I think you are paying attention, it’s just scary for most people.”

In an attempt to alleviate the fears associated with CodeNEXT, the commission passed a resolution on May 17 encouraging the Planning and Zoning Department to increase its outreach to underprivileged demographics and people who speak languages other than English. However, commission Chair Marisa Perales said, “I’m still concerned about the community outreach.”

Nearly every commissioner echoed her anxiety about adequate community outreach and the speed at which these drafts are moving to City Council.

Bobby Levinski, an attorney representing the Save Our Springs Alliance, addressed the commission saying, “If you feel rushed, I encourage this body to reach out to City Council because they are driving this timeline.”

According to Rusthoven, the Planning and Zoning Department has been taking feedback into account.

In the latest draft, the new method of zoning under CodeNEXT makes it much easier to compare the impervious cover allowances across zones, which enables a focus on the resulting water quality and flood controls that would need to be implemented. Hollon explained, “One of the backbones of our proposal is flood management.”

To mitigate the effects of current impervious cover and prevent a future oversaturation, entitlements are going down slightly and open space percentages are being increased across the city.

Core city regulations like the 2013 Watershed Protection Ordinance and SOS will not be changed.

As a result of this focus and comments from stakeholders, Hollon said they are proposing that rainwater storage facilities are not counted toward impervious cover limits. “I think we’re going to see a real change in how people see impervious cover as a way to harvest rainwater,” he said. Under CodeNEXT, “We really think that this is the way you need to do business, not just some alternative possibility.”

Another key change is the new designation of “keystone trees,” which are currently classified as trees with a diameter of eight to 18 inches. This is a classification under “heritage trees,” which have a diameter of 24 inches or larger.

“Currently our language, to say the least, is confusing. Some say it’s contradictory to tree regulations,” said city arborist Keith Mars. Therefore, to simplify the code and incentivize preservation instead of replacement of these trees that do not currently qualify for the heritage tree protections, CodeNEXT offers these trees a special designation in both commercial and residential zones.

All these strides toward simplification, however, result from a reduction in words. “We have reduced words without removing content,” explained  Mars.

This pruning of the language did not go unnoticed. Both commissioners Peggy Maceo and Linda Guerrero expressed concerns about a lack of “red line formatting” to better track changes. “You put in green what you’ve added but we don’t know what’s being left out,” said Maceo. “I just don’t understand why that (red lining) can’t happen.”

Tracking of content removal has “proven to be very difficult if not impossible,” according to Rusthoven.

Due to the speed at which the drafts are being asked to move forward and the resulting lack of stakeholder input, Perales concluded, “I think it’s obvious that we don’t have enough information tonight and we’re not going to make a recommendation.”

Photo by David Eickoff made available through a Creative Commons license.

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 Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

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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