Public Notice: Making Plans for Planning

Nervous times for the city's Planning and Development Review Department

Public Notice

City Council discussion this week was largely dominated by two issues: Mayor Steve Adler's still-evolving plan to add staff to his office, and Council's growing conviction that things are seriously awry in the city's development review process.

The first issue is something of a moving target – Would these new staff answer solely to the mayor, or do Council members get input as well? Would they work on policy, which Council considers its purview, or would they be "shepherds" for ideas and initiatives directed by Council? If this is a temporary trial run, where does it say that? And after all is said and done, who's going to staff all the new and newly-empowered committees? – but the second issue is more like a sitting duck.

At the "Neighborhood Issues" deep-dive session on Thursday, and then pointedly in Monday's workshop on the CodeNEXT rewrite of the land development code, the policy discussion kept drifting back to "Zuckergate": speculation over what's in the so-called Zucker Report, the long-awaited, yet already controversial consultant's report on the city's beleaguered Planning and Development Review Department, which the department appears to be sitting on, and which is widely expected to be broadly critical.

Easily the most provocative speaker at the CodeNEXT meeting was Jim Duncan, the nationally known urban planner who ran Austin's planning and development programs back when the last major rewrite was done 30 years ago. Duncan heartily agrees that a new rewrite is long overdue, but he added a caveat: "I do not think our current code is as bad as a lot of people claim. ... You can have the best code in the world, but if it is not applied and implemented in a consistent and transparent manner, in my opinion, it's not worth the paper it's written on." And over the last 30 years, he went on, "regulations have too often been ignored or diluted by the overuse, misuse, and abuse of variances, waivers, and exceptions. In too many instances Austin, in my opinion, has compromised the rule of land use law."

That lies directly at the door of the PDRD, of course.

No one is happy with PDRD. Developers (all the way down to the guy having to pull a permit for his DIY bathroom remodel) decry the permitting process as slow, expensive, and capricious, using technology that seems stuck in the mimeograph era. But citizen advocates complain as well about the planning side of the coin, saying that staff and Council have been too willing to change the rules for monied development interests, and that's what has created most of the rule sprawl and process ambiguity. Duncan agrees: "We have a tendency of packing our growth-related boards, commissions, task forces, and stakeholder groups with individuals who represent organizations that are in the primary business of promoting growth and development. We need to do a much better job of balancing public involvement, and involving more people that look at Austin primarily as a community, and not a commodity." Here, here.

PDRD Director Greg Guernsey said his department is in the middle of reviewing the draft findings, and sending back corrections and edits, and that it would be another month or so before the report is released. Several Council members, most directly CMs Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen, asked in various ways if they could see the report in whatever form it may be. But that seems unlikely to happen. PDRD had been fighting a Freedom of Information Act request for the draft report; on Monday they released a 71-page version of what's expected to be a several-hundred-page report – with all the text redacted.

Duncan yet again: "I do not know what's in the Zucker report, but Mr. Zucker did make a preliminary presentation to our CodeNEXT committee last fall, and I can assure you that there's going to be some pretty interesting findings there."

No doubt. But before the hammer drops, be reminded that it's not all on the hapless staff at PDRD. If the city truly wants to curb all those "variances, waivers, and exceptions" to its code, that's a message that will have to start at the top, with a commitment from upper city management and Council to back those decisions. Council has not often had the stomach for that in recent years.

A new nonprofit group, the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association, formed on Wednesday, Feb. 25, in order "to bring clarity to the groundwater property rights associated with owning land over the Trinity and Edwards aquifers and associated springs." In particular, TESPA opposes a plan by a company called Electro Purification, to pump 5.1 million gallons per day of groundwater out of the Trinity Aquifer, and they say the Edwards Aquifer Authority should have stepped in, due to "the many interconnections between the Edwards and Trinity aquifers through this fractured limestone geology." At press time, no one has yet noted any connection between this issue and the new Decker Lake Golf LLC plan to get its water from the Trinity Aquifer.

The New Texas Two-Step: Beginning March 1, inspection stickers are no longer being given out in Texas, though inspections themselves are still required. There's an insanely convoluted explanation, including a YouTube video, at www.TwoStepsOneSticker.com, but the gist of it is this: You must have a current passing inspection in order to register your vehicle; so get your car inspected within a 90-day window before your registration expires, then vehicle registration is unchanged.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Zucker Report, Planning and Development Review, Jim Duncan, Greg Guernsey, CodeNEXT

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