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Land use commissions diverge ahead of CodeNEXT third draft

Friday, November 3, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Differences of opinion between the Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission are becoming more distinct. The Zoning and Platting Commission managed to submit an official recommendation on Monday, whereas the Planning Commission passed a less formal resolution on Wednesday, but both commissions made their positions known to staff this week close to the Oct. 31 deadline for comments on CodeNEXT’s second draft.

The disagreement centers on how commanding a role Imagine Austin should play in the drafting of the new Land Development Code. CodeNEXT was initiated by the city’s comprehensive plan when it was adopted in 2012, but after years of internal deliberation and public debate, the link is not as palpable as it used to be.

The Zoning and Platting Commission has taken a hard stance in reasserting the mandate of Imagine Austin as the primary document guiding staff and the consultants as they craft the final iteration of CodeNEXT, due out on Nov. 28. The commission recommends that the mapping of the new code should wait until Imagine Austin is updated next year and that in the meantime the text should be aligned with Imagine Austin whenever possible. “CodeNEXT is meant to be an implementation process, not a new planning exercise,” the recommendation document reads.

At its meeting, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Betsy Greenberg shared a comparison of the current CodeNEXT map and the Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map. She pointed to how Imagine Austin had envisioned more dispersed density around the city. “That’s the agreed-on plan. The plan doesn’t say put all the extra residential density around downtown. We have other (city) centers,” she said. “I think we should follow the plan.”

The Planning Commission, however, is less firm on the issue. At its Nov. 1 special-called meeting, Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson proposed a motion to incorporate the Obama administration’s Housing Development Toolkit published last year as a guiding force in the CodeNEXT review process, as long as it is consistent with the comprehensive plan.

“When there’s doubt in the information on both sides and you have to decide which way to go, go the Obama way,” Thompson said at the meeting.

Some of the toolkit’s recommendations are not legal in Texas, like inclusionary zoning, but others included eliminating off-street parking, streamlining the permitting process, and establishing by-right development. It also puts a strong emphasis on high-density development.

Directing staff to take those recommendations wholesale without the nuances explained in the report, however, could be misleading, said Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza.

Commissioner Tom Nuckols said that it was the commission’s duty to implement Imagine Austin, and so he proposed for the resolution to be amended to say that the toolkit be used “to the extent that it was consistent with Imagine Austin.” Thompson accepted.

“I would not want to take an action that somehow sends a signal that pieces of Imagine Austin can be overridden by something in the Obama housing toolkit,” Nuckols said. Thompson’s resolution passed 9-1-3, with Commissioner Karen McGraw dissenting, and commissioners Zaragoza, James Shieh and Patricia Seeger abstaining.

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

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