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Planning Commission hosts massive CodeNEXT public work session

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The Planning Commission opened the doors of City Hall yesterday to a public eager to share its thoughts on the second draft of CodeNEXT. Despite some polarizing opinions on certain topics, the atmosphere remained cordial, and the complex review process that typically seems unwieldy for once almost appeared manageable.

The zoning chapter of CodeNEXT has consumed the attention of the joint land use commission meetings that have taken place since the first draft came out in January. Faced with an encroaching deadline of Oct. 31 for formal recommendations on the second draft, Planning Chair Stephen Oliver suggested at a September joint meeting that the Planning Commission dedicate one meeting to tackling the “other chapters” of CodeNEXT.

The majority of the hundreds of pages of CodeNEXT are in the zoning chapter, and the other chapters are relatively short in comparison. So, Oliver had explained, if the commission were to knock out the review of the “other” chapters in one night, it would free up time to dissect the zoning chapter in the remaining days of October.

Before the Oct. 24 meeting started, the coalition Community Not Commodity held a rally outside, with many participants holding signs reading “CodeNEXT Wrecks Austin!” Speakers from various groups like Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, and the Save Our Springs Alliance, among others, called on citizens to sign a petition that would put CodeNEXT up to a public vote next year.

Inside, a crowd of over 50 attendees followed Planning commissioners as they split into six rooms to go over administration and procedures, general planning requirements, subdivisions, transportation and more. In the Board and Commission room, citizens took the seats usually filled by commissioners around the table to discuss Article 23-3E: affordable housing.

“Our goal tonight is not to fix anything or provide alternatives,” Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said at the session. “It’s more to (decide) is this a section that everyone likes and is ready to go, or is it a section where people want more information?”

The other sessions (including one held in the snack room) generally took the same section-by-section approach, some keeping notes on poster paper while others stuck to recording the discussion on their devices.

Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey told the Austin Monitor that the city had facilitated similar work sessions during the urban farms and short-term rentals debates, but there had never been so many work sessions happening all at the same time.

“I think it’s really working out well,” Guernsey said. “Each (person) is making their point, making sure the other side understood where they were coming from. (Each person is) acknowledging that they’re fighting for the same thing, which is to make Austin a better place.”

After receiving official comments from the land use commissions, staff and consultants will spend the next month transforming the text into its third and final incarnation, scheduled to be released Nov. 28. The commissions will then have a little over a month to produce their final recommendations before they hand it off to City Council.

The commissioners reconvened after a couple of hours, and the consensus was that the breakout group format had been a success. Oliver proposed that the commission should plan on another unconventional setup for the Jan. 9 joint meeting, but this time around there would be one long public hearing where nothing is off the table, even zoning. “I bet you it takes all day,” Oliver said.

Check out a live video of the event here.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons 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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