Postponing for what?

Even when Austin’s land development code doesn’t put up barriers to projects, the culture at City Hall imposes long delays that drive up the cost of development. One obvious example: postponements.

I’ve written about the issue a lot for the Monitor over the past few years. Here, here and here.

Both of the citizen land use commissions –– the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission –– regularly vote to postpone cases if even one neighbor requests a delay. The postponements are usually recommended by city staff on behalf of the neighbors.

At the Jan. 15 meeting of ZAP, Don Perryman of the Planning & Zoning Dept. explained that it is the tradition in the department to grant each side (the applicant and “the neighborhood”) one postponement. The commission does not have to accept that recommendation, but it almost always does.

Sometimes the postponement makes sense, at least politically. If a proposal is hugely controversial, it makes sense to take time and ensure that neighbors don’t feel unheard. But in many instances the postponement is over a tiny project that nobody has bothered to show up to oppose. It’s one neighbor sending an email requesting a delay.

The postponements that most infuriate developers or their agents are on cases that the commission has almost no discretion over. For instance, ZAP and Planning Commission regularly take up site plans. In those instances, as long as city staff determines that the site plan complies with the code, the commission is obligated by state law to approve it. And yet the commissions will still vote to postpone approval of a site plan if a citizen requests it, even if that person can’t do anything to change the outcome of the case.

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There is a range of opinions about postponements among land use commissioners. As you might imagine, those whose primary concern is input from the neighborhood association are far more inclined to grant postponements than those whose primary concern is creating housing and limiting the cost of development.

That divide was on display at the ZAP meeting last week, when a property owner sought a final plat for the subdivision of two lots into one 4.6 acre lot in South Austin. An adjacent property owner requested a postponement.

Bruce Evans, one of the two people on ZAP who works in development, said he didn’t see any reason for a postponement. ZAP is required to approve the plat. If it doesn’t, the city could be sued. Sunil Lavani, the other development professional, agreed.

However, Commissioner Ann Denkler pointed out that the commission’s own rules –– drafted at some point in the last couple years –– say that it will be the policy to grant one postponement request to the applicant, to staff, and to neighbors. It would be inconsistent with policy not to grant the delay, she and others on the commission argued. The postponement was approved, 7-3, with only Abigail Tatkow joining Evans and Lavani in dissent.

While there are probably a few on ZAP who see no issue with delaying projects, it does appear that a couple of the more moderate neighborhood preservationists on the commission are open to considering changes.

“I’d like for us to really sit down and talk about postponements,” said Jim Duncan, who comes from the old school of Austin’s planning world (he helped write the current code) but has also objected to some of the more extreme forms of NIMBYism.

Evans also said he wanted the commission to reevaluate its approach: “I want us to come to some understanding that postponement is because of some necessity, not just because I want to see if I can mess with your project. And I think we’ve had some of those in the past.”

Postponements do cost money, often to property owners who are operating on tight budgets. A two-week delay often results in thousands of additional dollars out of their pocket.

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