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Land use commissions skeptical about CodeNEXT 3.0 promises

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

The third draft of CodeNEXT made its long-awaited debut last Monday, presented to the public at an open house that evening in the flattering light of the golden hour – but by the next night, at the joint land use commission meeting, the congeniality of first impressions had given way to sober deliberation. Consultants and staff did their best to clarify perceived imperfections in the latest draft of the new Land Development Code, but it appears unlikely that the commissions will be recommending CodeNEXT to City Council exactly as-is.

The biggest change that made headlines between the current draft and the previous iteration was the supposed scaling back of increased entitlements to the zoning of urban neighborhoods under the CodeNEXT map. Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan said that he thought the Austin American-Statesman had unfairly characterized the reduction of density as neighborhood-friendly. Unless compatibility regulations are brought in line with more relocation of density to the Imagine Austin corridors, in his opinion, CodeNEXT could still be an affront to urban residents. “(Draft) 3 has been rendered toothless,” he said. “Trees are not going to hide a seven-story building in your backyard.”

In examining the proposed Draft 3 zoning map, Board of Adjustment Chair William Burkhardt said he was concerned about compatibility in relation to several instances of what appeared to be high-intensity “spot zoning” tracts zoned in the new R4A (most comparable to the current Urban Family Residence district) in the midst of single-family homes. Opticos Design consultant John Miki, however, clarified that Burkhardt had misinterpreted a table in the presentation and assumed that four units could be built on an 1,800-square-foot lot when really only a townhome would be permitted.

Miki said he wanted to emphasize that commissioners should always check the actual text of the code and not make conjectures based on summaries. Shortly after, though, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Ann Denkler referenced another table, related to the R2C zoning district (most comparable to the current Family Residence or Condominium Site districts), which allows for single-family attached – meaning a single-family home and an accessory dwelling unit – on a lot. Assisted by Planning Commissioner Trinity White, Denkler posed a hypothetical scenario in which an R2C lot could be subdivided, resulting in potentially four units on the same square footage.

Consultants and staff could not immediately confirm or deny whether that was the case but said they would have an answer soon.

Other commissioners were disappointed with the map, but for the opposite reasons. Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson said he felt like he was in “The Wizard of Oz with the “cowardly” map. “If only it had a heart,” he said. The map is reflective of the “staff playing politics,” he said, and does not align with the Imagine Austin goals of creating a compact and connected city.

Although criticisms were shared, the majority of commissioners did say that they considered the new document workable. The original deadline for their recommendation to City Council was late April, but a working Planning Commission review schedule puts the passing of the baton closer to early May. The commissions will likely hold a series of joint public hearings in March on both the text and map for Draft 3, although the exact dates have not yet been pinned down.

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

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