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Bill that would have revived Land Development Code dies in session

Thursday, June 3, 2021 by Amy Smith

It wasn’t on the city’s legislative agenda, but a bill that would have empowered City Council to move forward with a final vote on a revised Land Development Code died in a House committee, giving neighborhood advocates another victory over the city and developers.

House Bill 2989, brought by Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, would have rescinded a 2020 court ruling that voided Council’s initial votes on a revised land use code. The revisions sought to enact a comprehensive rezoning of much of the city while denying property owners the right to protest the changes. The bill’s companion, Senate Bill 1120, was referred to the Local Government Committee but did not advance to a hearing.

Cyrier’s legislation contained proposed amendments to the state’s existing Local Government Code, which would have granted protest rights only in cases where “a proposed change to a regulation or boundary … only affects an individual lot or a limited area of contiguous lots or land.” In other words, a comprehensive rezoning effort such as the derailed LDC would have been sanctioned had the bill obtained legislative approval.

Members of Community Not Commodity, the Austin group that fought the zoning rewrite in Council chambers and in court, found a friendly and largely sympathetic audience at an April hearing of the House Land and Resource Management Committee, a bipartisan group chaired by Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont. The residents’ arguments centered on municipalities giving property owners sufficient notice and the right to protest zoning changes that would affect their property.

Lawmakers asked tougher questions of those who favored passage of the House bill, which included representatives from Texans for Housing, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin and Habitat for Humanity. The Texas Association of Builders and the Real Estate Council of Austin also supported the bill.

While those in favor testified that the bill would make it easier to create more density, build multiple types of housing for all income levels, and on the whole, be in the best interest of growing communities, Chair Deshotel observed that their vision seemed to do the opposite of benefiting communities.

Scott Turner, president-elect of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, argued that the city of Austin’s goal is to build more housing, yet developers are stymied by the city’s existing building regulations.

To that, Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, who belongs to the more conservative wing of the Legislature, seemed aghast that the homebuilders were bemoaning local regulations when they’ve been building all over the state for decades. “Homebuilders can build anywhere they want,” he said, adding that homes are always welcome outside city limits in areas that are less regulated.

“Sure, cities have to grow, but you don’t have to build over the top of people and roll them out,” Biedermann said, echoing the sentiments expressed by neighborhood advocates.

Cyrier, the bill’s sponsor, closed out the testimony, saying, “With or without the bill, there will be the same level of anxiety that (residents) have now” about development. Committee members agreed and expressed the need to resolve these types of development issues as Texas continues to grow. Nevertheless, Texas’ long-cherished property rights laws won the day with lawmakers and the bill was left pending in committee. It effectively died at the end of the legislative session on May 31.

With the Land Development Code in limbo and HB 2989 landing with a thud at the Capitol, it’s uncertain whether the city will continue pursuing its appeal of District Court Judge Jan Soifer’s ruling or start the code rewrite process anew.

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