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Adler tries to find consensus on CodeNEXT

Wednesday, May 23, 2018 by Jack Craver

As City Council prepares to begin deliberations on CodeNEXT next month, Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged Tuesday that no other issue that he has confronted during his three and a half years in office has divided the community as much as the proposed overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code.

The tentative schedule unveiled by Planning and Zoning Department staff on Tuesday is for Council to conduct two days of deliberations, on June 5 and June 12, and potentially take a vote on the first reading of CodeNEXT on June 13 or June 21. As is the case with all zoning matters, Council must approve it on three separate readings.

But Adler said he hopes that the first few meetings on the subject can focus on identifying areas of agreement, rather than “winning close votes.”

That does not mean avoiding the most controversial issues, but rather trying to identify areas of agreement among at least eight members of the 11-member dais on any given issue, such as parking rules, compatibility standards or unit limits.

For instance, said Adler, there might not be a supermajority of Council members who agree that the height limit in a certain zone should be 30 feet. However, there may be at least eight Council members who agree that it should be above 22 feet but below 36 feet.

Identifying that consensus early in the process, said Adler, could help Council and the public understand what the terms of the debate will be in August, when Council returns from its summer recess.

Adler said that he created the idea along with Council members Ann Kitchen and Greg Casar.

Kitchen said that it would benefit the process and the community if Council members worked to find areas of agreement.

“We haven’t, as a group, tried to get to consensus,” she said.

Some others expressed skepticism that such a process would lead to a better product or make the public feel any better about the outcome.

Council Member Leslie Pool pointed out that many of the votes that have taken place in the Planning Commission have ended 7-6, portending a lot of close votes on Council. She also worried that Council would be in a tough position to wrap up CodeNEXT in August and September, at the same time that it will be dealing with the budget.

Council Member Alison Alter worried that delaying action on some of the most sensitive issues would not serve to assuage constituents who are nervous about what the new code will mean for their neighborhoods.

“A lot of the anxiety is because people don’t understand the process and don’t know where we are in terms of the votes (on controversial issues),” she said.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan compared the eight-votes threshold to the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate that make it extremely difficult to pass legislation without a three-fifths majority. That simply leads to “gridlock,” he said.

Staff from the Planning and Zoning Department indicated that Council will be presented with two versions of the code that Council will be able to work from: the recommendation crafted by staff and a separate recommendation that the Planning Commission is aiming to finish up in the coming days.

Compared to the staff recommendation, the Planning Commission’s recommendation will likely be a bigger departure from the existing code, allowing greater density and requiring less parking. Pool suggested that Council treat the staff recommendation, which she called a more “neutral” document, as the starting point for crafting the new code.

Pool also took issue with the fact that staff made no reference to the Zoning and Platting Commission’s recommendation that Council give up on CodeNEXT.

“They need to have a seat at this table as well because they are a land use commission,” she said. “I realize that may be a little discomfiting to some folks.”

On Thursday, Council will vote on a resolution brought forward by Pool, Alter, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Ora Houston to “express its intent” to put an initiative on the ballot this November to require voter approval of CodeNEXT or any “comprehensive revision” of the Land Development Code.

City attorneys have said that they don’t believe that state law allows for zoning changes to be subject to citizen initiatives unless the initiative proposes scrapping zoning rules entirely.

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

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