Wednesday, August 14, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Land Development Code team previews compromise

City Manager Spencer Cronk’s Land Development Code rewrite team claims to have struck a balance between respecting the long-term plans of current homeowners while encouraging new density to meet the city’s housing and transit goals.

As part of the overall effort to eliminate red tape and encourage the development of a mix of housing types and commercial spaces, Brent Lloyd, development officer with the Development Services Department, told the Housing and Planning Committee Tuesday that the code revision team has crafted a way to do so without freezing the rights of single-family homeowners to further invest and improve their properties.

Drawing on lessons learned by other cities, Lloyd said staff members have found an approach to housing that will encourage dense new housing while ensuring that homeowners will not lose any of their current benefits when the new code is adopted. If under the new code, for example, a single-family home is located in a multifamily zone where single-family is not a permitted use, the homeowners will not lose any site entitlements they currently enjoy, such as adding an extra room or remodeling.

“The key thing to keep in mind as we discuss our proposal for the (Land Development Code) revision is that existing single-family homes will not be nonconforming uses,” said Lloyd.

Rather than locking single-family homes into “legal nonconformity” – a designation for properties that had met code regulations at one time but fell out of compliance through a land code revision – Lloyd said staff is proposing a compliant residential use concept. Under the new code, existing single-family homes will be granted conformity and the full rights to invest, improve and expand their homes as would be possible through the base entitlements in single-family neighborhoods.

As a counterweight to low-density preservation, the team has drafted a measure that goes much further than CodeNEXT by prohibiting development of new single-family homes in transition areas, or the areas between major transportation and activity corridors and the low-density inner parts of neighborhoods.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan called the compliant residential use idea “genius” for its ability “to address what I think Council’s intention always was but was very hard to define.” Considering the city’s struggle against displacement, he said the policy would give those who want to stay in their homes more tools “to maintain and leverage their properties in those neighborhoods.”

Lloyd said the current code has a similar provision stating that structures dating to 1984 are technically still in conformity even if they are not consistent with today’s code. But, he said, “that provision doesn’t really give any detail and it’s been very difficult for staff to make sense of that in terms of how it applies.”

The preservation effort is consistent with Council’s direction to prevent demolition of single-family homes for the purpose of replacing them with larger ones. It would also preserve the rights of homeowners to expand on their properties, including adding an accessory dwelling unit.

In an extension of the work done in CodeNEXT, Lyndi Garwood with Planning and Zoning said this time around, the team has further simplified the process of adding a second dwelling unit. Under the new code, the added units could either be separated or attached to the primary home and built entirely on a second or third floor if desired. And while Draft 3 of CodeNEXT restricted unit size based on the total area of the lot, Garwood said staffers now recommend a uniform limit of 1,100 square feet regardless of the lot size.

Garwood said the team is also suggesting allowing at least two dwelling units, including duplexes, in every so-called Residential House-Scale zone, the code’s lowest-density residential category.

For clarity’s sake, Council Member Greg Casar explained that two units are currently technically allowed in all of the city’s base residential zones but in many cases, particularly with Single Family-Large Lot (SF-1) and Single Family-Standard Lot (SF-2) properties, significant restrictions apply.

The code revision team will be visiting the Mobility Committee for another update on Aug. 21.

Photo by Atxblogger [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City Council Housing and Planning Committee

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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