CodeNEXT: Conditions for Overlays
Draft 2.0 being readied for Sept. 15
Expect the release of CodeNEXT version 2.0 on Friday, Sept. 15. City staff responsible for the land use code rewrite revealed the date almost as an afterthought during Tuesday's joint meeting of the Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission, following an update by consultants on how the code will deal with nonconforming uses and structures, and changes in the Code's Process and Procedures.
The biggest shock to commissioners seemingly came when consultant Lisa Wise mentioned the potential removal of conditional overlays – used on specific properties in combination with zoning districts to further restrict land use – because it's not "recognized as best practice" across the country and "doesn't seem sustainable." Wise said consultants have identified nearly 4,000 COs in use citywide. Moving forward, they've recommended modifying base zones and pulling apart the process. Builders will instead be able to request conditional use permits (CUPs, which require commission approval) and minor use permits (MUPs, which can be approved by the city's Development Services staff). Wise also noted that the permits would be appealable to PC and ZAP, as well as City Council. The appeals process will have a fee associated with it, but Wise said the cost has yet to be determined.
Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd explained that the new code included the option of switching more of the commissions' process to quasi-judicial vs. administrative when applying objective criteria – meaning commissioners would not be able to discuss a decision outside of "public meetings in the dais." This is not set in stone (fortunate since none of the commissioners present Tuesday vocalized support for the quasi-judicial process), but Lloyd said the option was included to ensure commissioners and Council had opportunity to consider it. ZAP Commissioner Ann Denkler, playing devil's advocate, did note that this process would stop commissioners from walking into a meeting "with your mind made up." Lloyd also assured commissioners that code writers and consultants are attempting to address the recommendations from both the League of Women Voters and the CodeNEXT Advisory Group's report for more public process and less staff discretion in the Code's second draft.
The meeting's final 15 minutes focused on a rapid-fire overview on modeling housing capacity, which resulted in a brief glimpse at a visualization of the Code's housing supply plan. Mapping consultant John Fregonese seemed optimistic about meeting the city's Strategic Housing Blueprint recommendation of 135,000 new Austin homes to address the housing crisis, and suggested that, under CodeNEXT, housing options would target "more vacant land and less redevelopment." Additionally, Fregonese noted that under the existing code there are "low rent" areas within the city that could support "horizontal mixed-use [non-high-rise], pedestrian friendly" housing if they were zoned for mixed use instead of commercial. Consultants hope that a more finalized housing capacity map will not only inform draft two, but be released alongside it. Commission Chairs Stephen Oliver (PC) and Jolene Kiolbassa (ZAP) requested that this conversation continue in the next meeting.
Planning Commissioners briefly discussed the mapping at the end of their solo meeting directly following the joint work session. Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza seemed pleased with the mapping presentation and said she was hopeful that it could offer housing diversity "throughout the city," specifically calling out the lack of changes to West Austin under the CodeNEXT first draft.
Commissioners will likely have at least two more joint meetings before the next draft's Sept. 15 release. They'll then have just over 10 weeks to dig into the new copy, make suggestions, and have them incorporated before staff's anticipated Nov. 28 release of the third and final draft. If all goes according to plan, CodeNEXT staff will then host two public hearings in December, before going to Council in February, where the code is expected to be voted on for enactment next April. Staff will likely send out postcards to alert residents of the two hearings sometime between late October and early November.