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Planning commissioners feeling (relatively) good about CodeNEXT

Thursday, May 31, 2018 by Jack Craver

Despite their own differences in opinion on development and the fever-pitch rhetoric surrounding CodeNEXT at City Hall, members of the Planning Commission generally have a positive outlook on the controversial overhaul of the Land Development Code.

“I’m not going to say I’m happy with it, but it’s much better than (the draft) we got from staff,” said Commissioner Greg Anderson, who is perhaps the commission’s staunchest advocate for density and reduced zoning restrictions.

The good feelings are not restricted to one side of the ideological spectrum. Commissioner Trinity White, who is far more likely than Anderson to oppose changes to neighborhood plans, told the Austin Monitor that she saw the Planning Commission’s recommendations to City Council as mostly a “happy ending to a very contentious project.”

“I think the best part is the fact that so many items passed with a large majority,” she said, acknowledging that there were nevertheless some issues that were decided by one-vote margins.

Commissioner James Shieh, who also found himself on the losing end of a number of close votes, said that the proposed code wasn’t perfect, but that he was “supportive of the body of work that we’ve created” and that he believed the city was closer to achieving an “equitable code.”

Only Commissioner Karen McGraw has described the effort as a failure.

“I’m beginning to feel that we have loosened the code so much that we’ve created a very, very complex system that in the end offers many, many, many entitlements, bringing us much closer to a place of not having a land development code,” she said.

McGraw thus offered a motion to not only reject CodeNEXT, but to abolish the entire Land Development Code. It failed after none of her colleagues offered to second it. McGraw later told the Monitor that she made her motion to see if any commissioners were willing to openly support what she viewed as their apparent goal.

“I really wanted to see if somebody would say, ‘Actually yes, I really want to get rid of all zoning,’” said McGraw.

At another point, McGraw offered an amendment to the code to abolish short-term rentals as a legal use. That also failed, with only McGraw in support.

A vote to recommend the changes proposed by the commission to the chapter of CodeNEXT that deals with zoning, the most significant part of the code, passed 7-2-2, with McGraw and Commissioner Todd Shaw opposed and commissioners Tom Nuckols and Patricia Seeger abstaining.

Nuckols and Seeger offered gentle criticism of the work produced by their colleagues.

Nuckols said that he believed the proposed zoning was mostly an improvement but that it needed stronger compatibility standards.

While blaming existing compatibility rules for “killing a lot of developments unnecessarily,” Nuckols argued that CodeNEXT goes too far in the other direction.

“I don’t subscribe to the notion that density and compatibility can’t coexist,” he said.

Seeger concurred: “I think we really need to do much more work on the compatibility,” she said. “That’s really the crux of how we’re going to shape Austin in the future.”

While the Planning Commission did not recommend scrapping compatibility standards, which typically prevent buildings of a certain height from being constructed if they’re within a certain distance of a single-family home, the commission did recommend some measures aimed at exempting certain properties from the standards, such as projects that include a “density bonus” (with income-restricted housing) or properties on the city’s major corridors.

The commission also recommended that Council treat the the commission’s proposed code as the starting point for its deliberations, rather than the proposed code recommended by city staff. That is in line with the way that Council typically approaches zoning cases, noted Chair Stephen Oliver.

“If we did this level of work, it is the starting point,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Oliver, who recently announced his plans to step down as commission chair, called CodeNEXT “one of the most difficult experiences of my life,” but applauded his colleagues for a “level of cooperativeness that we should all be proud of.”

White returned the favor, crediting Oliver for “setting the tone” for the commission, “prioritizing civility and consideration and compromise.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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