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Monday, November 6, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Commission embraces ADUs in CodeNEXT

After months of debate, the Planning Commission at its Nov. 1 meeting directed staff and consultants to make the building of accessory dwelling units less constrained in the final draft of CodeNEXT.

The current code places several restrictions on the construction of ADUs, and the second draft of the new code has dropped some of those and relaxed others. But consultant Peter Park told the commission that in the third and final draft it had a choice between allowing ADUs or promoting them.

CodeNEXT 2.0 carries over existing code limits on floor area ratio, occupancy and impervious cover, as well as maintaining the short-term rental type 2 moratorium. The major new changes are that ADUs will be allowed in front of the primary structure and that there will be no parking requirements.

Commissioner Greg Anderson made a motion in response to Park’s question, saying that his main concern was affordability, and that if the third draft could make more ADUs on the ground possible then staff and consultants should push it as far as the housing type could go. Anderson emphasized that ADUs should be actively promoted in the third draft, even if some of the former restrictions ended up returning when Council made its changes.

Some commissioners expressed concerns about how the new regulations would impact compatibility around the city in general. Commissioner Karen McGraw also questioned how much a surplus of ADUs could meet affordable housing demands. “I want to know what ADUs do to homeownership. Not everybody wants to be a landlord, take out another mortgage, build another building (or) give up their backyard,” she said. “If we put two units on every single lot in the city, then you can’t buy a house unless you qualify to buy two units.”

As a compromise, Commissioner Tom Nuckols proposed a friendly amendment that the third draft should promote ADUs as long as they were context-sensitive, but Anderson rejected it. Instead, a compromise was reached that ADUs could be encouraged as long as the effort remained consistent with Imagine Austin. The motion passed 11-1-1, with McGraw dissenting and Chair Stephen Oliver abstaining.

Oliver explained that he supported the language of the motion, but that he was not okay with a review process where a vote had to be called on each hot-topic issue. “I’m not comfortable with us, meeting by meeting, going through and taking up more motions,” he said. “I see a slippery slope. I think we’re going to get into the weeds.”

Oliver said that the goal should be to save binding decisions on the central issues of the new code for the commission’s final recommendation, which they will be submitting in January, and that staff and the consultants could get a feel for how the commission felt on various issues in the meantime without formal motions.

Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey tried to explain what staff wanted. “It’s helpful to know where the commission is leaning; it gives me a perspective, especially when there are diverse opinions,” he said.

Even if staff seemed okay with it, Oliver reiterated that if the commission repeated this motion-by-motion procedure that they would have “one unhappy chair.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

accessory dwelling units: This term refers to smaller, secondary units built on the property of a primary residence. Also known as ADUs, mother-in-law suites, granny flats, or garden apartments, among other things.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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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