Public Notice: Austin Saves CodeNEXT Saves Austin
City forges "grand compromise" on land use regulations
Sorry, the headline and kicker are all I've got. I was going to write an April Fools' column about how this great breakthrough had occurred on CodeNEXT, and someone had figured out how to make everyone happy, and now it's going to sail through to Council approval ... and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how, even in my wildest satirical imagination, that was going to happen. So instead, there's this:
Four persistent critics of City Hall and the CodeNEXT process – Bill Aleshire, Bill Bunch, Mike Hebert, and Fred Lewis – sent a letter to City Council and others on Tuesday afternoon, alleging conflict of interest violations by Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver, and asking that Council remove him from the PC.
Now on the one hand, this is a nasty stink bomb to throw into the room at a critical juncture in the CodeNEXT proceedings: There's no real suggestion of actual wrongdoing by Oliver, or any of the hardworking volunteer PCers, and this isn't a new charge (read on below).
Oliver is the principal owner of OPA Design Studio, the premier designer and builder of breweries and distilleries in Austin; he even has the website www.breweryarchitect.com, a blog where he has written multiple times about what he thinks is wrong and too restrictive in current code, regarding where and how he can design such facilities. So far, that's fine, and really pretty damn great. I mean, the guy designs brewpubs for a living; how cool is that? I've been in at least a couple of them, and, two thumbs up, highest rating for the designs. But:
He's also chair of the Planning Commission. So, when draft two of the code came out, and it included previously undiscussed, much more liberal regulations regarding the placement of liquor establishments, and people wondered, "What's that about?" and it became a somewhat prominent complaint and discussion point, there's really not much question that that created a conflict of interest for him. He should have recused himself on it, and according to state law, that specifically includes not discussing the matter in any way in his official capacity. Yet he's done so – on the dais, in the media, and in the BreweryArchitect.com blog.
Here's the key sentence from the complaint: "It appears Oliver is using his position as Planning Commission Chair to influence CodeNEXT's brewery regulations to profit his clients and business." And well, yeah, that's pretty undeniably true, though it also has to be said that he's not necessarily using his power for bad – creating profit for people and small businesses is actually a good thing. Still, as the complaint goes on: "As a local public official with a substantial economic interest in OPA Design Studios, he is required to recuse himself from any participation involving CodeNEXT and breweries, which he has not done." And that too is pretty undeniably true. Though again it has to be said that there's a kind of stupid irony here, from Oliver's point of view: Here he is, probably the single most experienced guy in town when it comes to this industry and its needs, and is it really in the city's best interest for him to not be able to weigh in, when the time comes?
No, probably not, and that sort of brings us around to the complainants' second, more longstanding point, which is that by state law and the City Charter, there ought not to be so many developers on the PC in the first place. It's been an open secret since at least 2015 that, as the complaint states, "the Planning Commission's composition violated the [City] Charter's requirement that 'a minimum of two-thirds of the members shall be lay members not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.'" By most recent reckoning, at least seven commissioners are very directly connected, as practicing architects, engineers, and/or builders. Is it good that we have that expertise advising Council, even if the Charter forbids it? Or is it bad that we have so many foxes guarding the henhouse, even if they're honest, well-meaning foxes? Your call.
Happy Easter Fools' Day.
Congrats to the high school filmmakers at Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, who placed three films in the state finals at the recent UIL Young Filmmakers Festival. Willow Daleheit's "Sunflowers" won top honors in Division 2 traditional animation – the second year in a row that Ann Richards students have won that category. See the films at www.vimeo.com/annrichardsschoolfilm.