Then There's This: A Double Whammy for CodeNEXT

A vote of no confidence and an ethics complaint hit the land rewrite process

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Cutline

The rewrite of the city's Land Develop­ment Code is slogging along this summer, much the way it has since the "CodeNEXT" process eased into gear last year.

Maybe "eased" isn't an apt description, because there is nothing seamless about revising a land-use code that will impact every single neighborhood across the city. As such, a good many neighborhood associations and their umbrella group Austin Neigh­borhoods Council have not been terribly trusting of how the process is playing out. Their skepticism hasn't wavered since City Council adopted the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan in 2012. Rewriting the land code is a top priority of the Imagine Austin plan, so there's no turning back; but there are plenty of distractions to slow it down.

Last week, CodeNEXT was dealt not one but two ego-bruising blows. On Tues­day, July 22, the first major neighborhood plan to come forward under Imagine Aus­tin garnered a "no recommendation" from the Planning Commission – meaning it heads to Council for approval on somewhat awkward footing. (The PC vote was 5-0, with four members absent.) The inaugural neighborhood plan also carries mixed reviews from residents in the affected planning areas bounded north and south by Ben White Boul­e­vard and William Cannon Drive, and east and west by South First Street and Westgate Boulevard – the next development frontier south of the 78704 zip code. To staff's credit, the plan introduced to commissioners last week is an enormous improvement over the version rolled out for residents earlier this year. That one essentially amounted to an infill free-for-all, and residents who had been participating in the process felt they had been duped. A Planning Commission subcommittee had to run interference; neighbors and staff went back to the drawing board and worked up a compromise plan that created subdistricts, with supportive residents in those subdistricts, which allow for "small lot amnesty" and other workaround infill tools. Still, commissioners weren't completely sold on the plan, and it failed to muster an endorsement.

Two days after the PC meeting, ANC Pres­ident Mary Ingle fired the second shot with an ethics violation complaint against a member of the city's Land Development Code Advisory Committee, which is assisting in the rewrite process. Ingle, who stressed she was bringing the complaint individually and not as an ANC rep, alleges that committee member Melissa Neslund is actually an unregistered lobbyist who represents development clients before Council and various boards and commissions.

Ingle and her pro bono attorney, Fred Lewis, point to backup materials on the city's website that list Neslund's name as the agent representative for certain clients, but Ingle acknowledges that alone doesn't necessarily require that Neslund register as a lobbyist. The city lobby law defines lobbying as "the solicitation of a city official, by private interview, postal, or telephonic communications, or any other means other than public expression at a [public meeting]." That language, Ingle says, needs to be tightened to ensure that people who represent others for money don't have undue influence over council members and city staff.

For Neslund, Ingle's claims are fighting words. "I'm kind of an easy target in the sense that my name is on Council agendas, Planning Commission agendas ... and it's easy to pull that backup [from the city website]. But for them to make the assumption that just because my name is on an agenda and I'm processing an application that I'm a lobbyist is just, in my opinion, absurd and unfounded." In fact, she continued, a deeper search would reveal that some 90% of other people listed on city agendas and planning documents are also not registered as lobbyists. "Not every project requires a lobbyist," said Neslund, an urban planner for Bury + Partners engineering firm.

No Lobbyists Here

Keeping lobbyists off the committee was at the heart of its formation in early 2013. It was a hot topic at the time because Council Member Bill Spelman had hoped to reverse that provision and appoint a lobbyist to the committee. He reluctantly withdrew his proposal after drawing the ire of fellow Council members and community members. It happens that Neslund is Spelman's appointee on the committee.

Ingle is not likely to stop with Neslund. Nearly every code advisory committee member could be regarded as a "special interest" member, but in Ingle's view the committee is weighted in favor of real estate and business interests. Moreover, she added, the committee is not subject to the same rules and regulations of other boards and commissioners. "I find that problematic," she said. And, even though the committee plays a high-profile role in a code rewrite process, there are no video recordings of the committee meetings. Rather, they are audio recorded, and that makes it difficult to follow along. That, too, is troublesome.

The complaint is not a personal attack on Neslund, Ingle said (although Neslund would argue with that), but rather a signal that the people involved in the land development rewrite process do not have neighborhoods' best interest at heart. She says that's evidenced by what's already being done outside of the rewrite process.

"We have rubber-stamped some bad processes that the city promotes, and the business interests are always at the top," Ingle says. "And if we're going to change the code, it's not just the business interests, it's also the people who live here who are affected by those decisions."

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