Friday, September 6, 2019 by Jo Clifton

New rules put pressure on land use commissions

Operating under new rules as a result of the so-called “shot clock bill,” members of the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission will be under pressure to rapidly make decisions about whether to approve or reject subdivision development applications.

Commissioners will also be under greater pressure to attend meetings and, in many cases, make decisions more quickly than they would like to. In most cases, they will not be allowed to postpone consideration of subdivision applications because such applications will be automatically approved if not rejected within 30 days of filing. If a meeting that includes subdivision applications is canceled, the applications will automatically be approved.

On Thursday, Andrew Linseisen, assistant director of the Development Services Department, explained to members of those commissions some of the finer points of the rules brought about by House Bill 3167, which gives cities and counties just 30 days to act on subdivision applications once the city has accepted the applications as complete. In addition, jurisdictions will have only 15 days to act on changes to the applications.

Both commissions were expected to meet to hear what Linseisen had to say, but only ZAP had enough commissioners to make a quorum. Neither the chair nor the vice chair of ZAP attended the meeting, so David King, the most senior commissioner, acted as chair. The Planning Commission needed seven members for its quorum and had only six, so Chair Fayez Kazi canceled that commission’s meeting and left, saying he would watch the televised meeting at home.

Linseisen said because commissions must act within 30 days after a subdivision application is filed, staff members will make many of their recommendations to commissioners via email. And if a commission meeting falls on a Tuesday after a Monday holiday, staff will be under a great deal of pressure to produce a recommendation on the very day the commission is meeting.

King said that poses a problem for him because he likes to study the applications. It will also pose a problem for members of the public who like to track development and weigh in on its ramifications. Linseisen said the shot clock bill is definitely detrimental to transparency.

He explained that the commissions will be required to explain how an application does not meet city regulations when they are rejecting it, including which sections of the Land Development Code are being violated.

ZAP Commissioner Hank Smith asked how much detail would be required and whether the commission could have an attorney from the Law Department help them frame their rejections. Linseisen said he thought it would be a very good idea to have a city attorney attend the meetings to help commissioners with such questions.

In the past, developers have sometimes been allowed to file their subdivision applications even if they did not meet the department’s completeness check. That will no longer be allowed. Also, zoning must be completed before the subdivision application is filed, Linseisen said.

However, the department will administratively approve flag lot applications as well as re-plats and re-subdivisions, he said.

Linseisen also explained that if a developer comes in with an application and staff determines that it requires variances or waivers from code to be approved, staff will reject the completeness check and require the developer to file a project assessment. “They will say you need to file a project assessment to get a recommendation and an assessment of the variances required to approve this application.”

In the past, Linseisen said, “We’ve been pretty lenient,” allowing developers to file applications even if something was missing. “We’re going to be more strict now.”

City Council approved the new rules at its final regular meeting in August, ahead of a Sept. 1 deadline. Linseisen said only one new subdivision application has been filed since the rules took effect Sept. 1. That application is going through the department’s completeness check and will reach one of the commissions in October.

Photo by Tasma3197 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

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