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Council votes to ‘test’ CodeNEXT

Thursday, July 5, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council has asked the city manager to convene a group of development and design experts who will “test” the new regulations proposed in CodeNEXT.

The idea is to have a group of building professionals – architects, engineers, urban planners – go through the process of crafting a number of fictional projects based on the proposed code.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who brought forward the resolution establishing the process, said during Thursday’s City Council meeting that the goal is to see what impact the nonzoning regulations have on the ability of developers to build the units that they are allowed to create under the zoning code.

For instance, while the zoning for a piece of property might allow for eight units, other regulations regarding impervious cover, parking or tree preservation might make it either illegal or extremely expensive to build that number of units.

The resolution calls for the city manager to report back to Council by Aug. 31 on the results of the testing.

Troxclair’s resolution described the testing process as an important part of determining whether the new code would allow the city to achieve the goals in the Strategic Housing Blueprint, an aspirational document adopted by Council last year that calls for the city to add 135,000 new units over the next decade.

“We’ve only been looking at the zoning code in a silo,” said Troxclair. “But there are lots of other parts of our regulations that are going to affect whether we get to that number.”

The resolution got some pushback from other Council members, who said that the testing should not only be focused on the effects of regulations on unit count, but on other city priorities, such as environmental protection.

“All of those (regulations) also achieve other goals that are in Imagine Austin,” said Council Member Alison Alter, referring to the city’s comprehensive plan.

“We’re asking them to evaluate how things … like our tree protection standards impact unit capacity and the financial feasibility of a project,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “And is that really the question we want to be asking of the testing?”

Supporters of the resolution emphasized that the purpose of the testing is only to provide one perspective on the impact of regulations.

“I’m not looking for recommendations on what our policy priorities should be. That’s our role,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen. “What I’m looking for is the technical impact.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan noted that the proposed code includes drainage regulations that are more stringent than the current code and that he is inclined to support that. What he wants from the testing is to see how those regulations interact with the development process.

Alter had posted a number of proposed changes to the resolution on the City Council Message Board earlier in the day calling for the testing process to be open to the public and recorded and asking that none of the participants be registered lobbyists and that any recommendations “for resolving conflicts” between zoning and other regulations in the code be made by city staff, rather than the stakeholder group of development professionals.

Alter also suggested revising the language of the resolution to shift the focus of the testing away from the impact on housing units toward more broadly “achieving the goals of Imagine Austin,” which includes a variety of different objectives, such as preservation of neighborhood character.

Troxclair agreed to exclude lobbyists and make the process public, but she did not support having another staff recommendation. She maintained that the focus on housing was appropriate.

Troxclair eventually motioned to adopt the Alter suggestions she supported but not the others. That motion passed 9-2, with only Tovo and Alter opposed.

The final measure was adopted unanimously.

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