Beside the Point: Time Is on Her Side

When it comes to zoning cases, perhaps less is more

What if they held a zoning hearing – and nobody came?

Today's City Council meeting is like an episode of The Twilight Zone – "The Condos Are Coming to Maple Street," maybe? – but instead of being the last man on Earth, we're the last of the developers. (A shame, we know.) In a shocker of scarcity, there are only five items concerning zoning – three with hearings, two without. (By comparison, last council meeting had 17, and there were more than 35 the meeting before that.) Was the entire city designated for vertical mixed use last week, in some consent item that sailed through undetected? Perhaps the rezoning demand has temporarily cooled (like saner quarters of the real estate world at large – everywhere but Austin). That's not to say that next meeting, two weeks away, won't be another caffeine-mainlining affair packed to the rafters with variance requests.

The current zoning system barely works for anyone: neighbors and developers looking to make their cases face interminable waits; hearing the arguments, council slinks into the morning hours, sapped of alertness and foresight. Moreover, with their snouts rooted in the muck of zoning minutiae, council members can't see the forest for the trees – or in this case, the master plan for the point towers. It's government by crisis, the city's future steered from the seat of the dais.

It may sound counterintuitive, but shorter meetings would let council consider more. By curtailing the zoning procession, more time could be devoted to developing a holistic sense of the city and her growth – and a rest given to the piecemeal zoning patchwork passed off as city planning. "One thing we're considering doing is moving the zoning time up from 4pm to 2 or 3, so we get started on it sooner," says Council Member Lee Leffingwell. "A lot of times we're just waiting." At their recent in-chambers planning retreat, shortening meetings was one idea council decided to pursue. Another possibility is shortening speakers' time. Council does this already in some cases; opposing arguments in zoning skirmishes may be limited to 30 or 45 minutes, but only if both sides agree. "There's two sides to that argument," Leffingwell says. "In Austin we bias toward the total democratic side," giving every speaker – often dozens, upward of a hundred in some cases – their three minutes before the dais, but there's "also consideration for other people who want to get home before 2 o'clock in the morning." Another concept, proposed by the mayor, is a moratorium on votes after midnight. Having asked City Manager Toby Futrell to prepare some proposals, Leffingwell hopes to see something within a month.

Let's hope she considers ways Austin's sizable consortium of boards and commissions might shoulder the load – groups like the Planning, Zoning and Platting, and Design commissions. (Hell, even the Parks Commission has weighed in on Richard Suttle's waterfront variance requests.) They're the front lines in the growth wars and should be doing the trench-work while council sketches the big picture – proactively heading off whatever existential-threat-to-the-people's-republic they court each week. But let's not hold our breath.

In chaos, there's opportunity, and with a distracted council, city staff has taken on more decision-making power (a recent example being the city manager's attempt to spend bond dollars prior to the Oversight Committee's recommendation). While we wait for Futrell to streamline the meeting process, we can borrow a high tech question: Is the disarray on the dais a bug or a feature?

The Bottom Line

Money's on everybody's mind. Last week, several retired firefighters came before council to request a cost-of-living increase for their retirement funds. They didn't get an overly sympathetic reception (except from former firefighter Mike Martinez), but the process did spur council and Futrell to rethink the city's non-public-safety pension funds; await further developments. Also, legislation enabling meet-and-confer bargaining for the city's rank and file (endorsed by council last week) is in the works at the Capitol, with a bill filed last week by Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Houston Rep. Kevin Bailey. In more money talk, $170 million of those bond bucks get spent today, after review by the Bond Oversight Committee. Other notables include potential final approval of the massive Concordia campus redesign, a briefing on the city's suddenly revived Waller Creek plans, and a makeover of the parking lots under I-35 Downtown.

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Austin City Council, City Council, Zoning, Council Meetings, Lee Leffingwell, City Manager, City Staff, Toby Futrell

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