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The new ‘old code’ zoning category makes waves at commission

Monday, October 9, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

If adopted, CodeNEXT will be a total rewrite of the Land Development Code, but as comprehensive as the revisions will be, remnants of the old code will remain. At their Oct. 3 joint meeting, the land use commissions learned about the proposed zoning category for these vestiges of the current code: Former Title 25, or “F25” zones.

The first draft of CodeNEXT had proposed a hybrid solution for zoning Austin’s diverse landscape: a form-based code for the urban core, a use-based code for suburban areas, and the old Euclidean code for the rest. This idea was met with allegations of perpetuating economic segregation from members of the land use commissions and elsewhere, leading CodeNEXT drafters to reconsider the framework.

In response, the second draft has proposed a single spectrum of zoning, as well as the special F25 category for districts that could not be translated into CodeNEXT zones. Jerry Rusthoven with the Planning and Zoning Department explained at the meeting that these districts would include certain areas within transit-oriented developments, districts within small area plans, the University Neighborhood Overlay, planned urban districts, neighborhood conservation combining districts, planned development areas and districts with central urban redevelopment zoning.

All of these categories, Rusthoven said, had undergone extensive negotiations and carried highly specific restrictions to where much of the development occurring on them would not be likely to change in a long time. In less certain terms, some of the 3,800 conditional overlays (covering about 12,000 parcels) have fit into one of the new zoning categories, but many do not align and will receive the F25 designation.

Because CodeNEXT, if approved, will repeal and replace the old code, Rusthoven told the Austin Monitor, the city’s Law Department had concluded that it would be more legally sound to rezone everything in the city, even if the new zoning happens to be a reference to a dead code.

Some of the commissioners expressed suspicions about whether F25 was a clever way to establish a helpful link to the past, or if it represented the city’s unwillingness to move toward the ambitious goals set by Imagine Austin and the Strategic Housing Blueprint. Planning Commissioner James Shieh said that even if many of these conditional overlays did not fit neatly into CodeNEXT, maybe this was the time to reexamine them.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving all these F25s everywhere if there’s a way to bring them up to (the new code),” Shieh said at the meeting.

Rusthoven replied that while there may be some exceptions where a project built after its corresponding overlay was put in place may have surpassed its utility, in general the drafters did not question the legality of the existing overlays, because they assumed that City Council had reasons for approving them.

Planning Commissioner Patricia Seeger asked if F25 zoning districts would have an expiration date. Rusthoven said that they did not, but if someone wanted to change the zoning in the future it would have to be to a new zoning category and not one of the old ones. He also said he understood concerns that carrying over these conditional overlays would limit efforts to boost density, but that some of these properties had settlement agreements or other covenants that would restrict how the property could be used, regardless of the zoning.

The land use commissions have until January to produce their final recommendations for CodeNEXT, and then it will be Council’s turn to wrestle with the once-in-a-generation code overhaul.

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

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