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Vested Interests on the Dais

By Amy Smith, Fri., May 9, 2014

The Baylor House
The Baylor House
Photo courtesy of The City of Austin

A new vested rights ordinance – also known as "grandfathering" rights and formerly known as the Project Duration Ordinance – passed on first reading last week, and is set to return to City Council May 22.

Until then, there could be heavy lobbying by the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) on one side and environmental representatives on the other in an attempt to move the needle in their favor. As they stand now, though, the new rules appear to have left developers holding the shorter straw.

In sum, Council preliminarily passed the ordinance that the Planning Commission approved in April, but added several changes and clarifications in a lengthy, confusing fashion. The vote was 6-1, with Mayor Lee Lef­fingwell "symbolically" voting no because of what he called a couple of serious flaws in the version as it now exists.

Council members are going through this exercise, using buzzwords like the "flat nine," the "new napkin," the "old napkin," and the "dreaded daisy chain," as they draft a new ordinance in place of the one they repealed last year under threat of possible legislative action. The repeal followed a December 2012 Attorney General opinion that found the city's development rules to be out of step with state law.

The big-picture items taken up last week included giving developers a nine-year life­span on their projects, which is what RECA had requested, albeit with more flexibility; establishing guidelines on Managed Growth Agreements (this applies to multifaceted projects such as subdivisions), with the understanding that additional changes will be proposed before the ordinance returns on May 22; and tightening the project consent agreement process to require landowners claiming grandfathering rights on their projects to make stops at the Environmental Board and the Zoning and Platting Commission.

Most of the heavy lifting on the dicey issues was handled by CMs Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo, who each introduced several amendments. Spel­man's motions leaned in the developers' favor; Morrison's and Tovo's were more enviro-oriented. Perhaps the most interesting detail turned on the number of times Council Mem­ber and mayoral candidate Mike Mar­tin­ez and Mayor Pro Tem and potential mayoral candidate Sheryl Cole voted up or down in alignment with Morrison and Tovo. Watch for any windshifts in the May 22 round.

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