Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy

Judge throws out City Council votes on new Austin land code, putting rewrite in jeopardy

In a ruling that could derail Austin’s rewrite of its Land Development Code, a Travis County district judge voided two votes City Council has taken so far on the changes.

The city has spent nearly eight years and more than $10 million trying to rewrite its land code – the rules that determine what can be built and where in Austin – in an attempt to allow more and different kinds of housing in the city.

The third and final vote was expected in late March or early April, but was delayed earlier this week because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Judge Jan Soifer also ruled that Austin homeowners have the legal right to protest changes to the zoning of their land under a citywide revision. The city had previously said they did not, arguing multiple times that the land code rewrite is a policy change and does not guarantee landowners the same rights as in smaller, more targeted rezoning cases.

Under state law, property owners can challenge changes to the zoning of their property or those nearby. If they do so, a three-fourths vote of the local governing body is needed to veto that protest and let the new zoning go forward. In Austin, that means nine of the 11 Council members would need to vote against any protests in order to stop them.

It’s likely Austin does not have those votes; the votes taken so far on changes to the city’s new code have been split 7-4.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, one of the four Council members who has voted against the code revisions, said she was not surprised by Wednesday’s ruling, but she believes the Council will move forward with a rewrite – just with a process that looks different.

“I believe there is absolutely a path to passing a revised Land Development Code,” Tovo, who represents Central Austin, said.

If Council restarts the code rewrite process, it would be the second time it’s done so. In 2018, Council members voted to scrap the previous revision process, dubbed CodeNEXT, after Mayor Steve Adler said it had been plagued by “misinformation.”

“While we are disappointed in the ruling, we appreciate the court’s thoughtful consideration of this matter,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “In light of the judge’s decision, we will assess our options, and will advise Council accordingly.”

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This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News. 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

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