New bill would make it much easier for Austin to get new code

This is an excerpt from the March 8 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Identical bills filed on Friday would make it much easier for City Council to adopt a new land development code.

The bill, which was filed in the House by Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, and in the Senate by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, amends a provision of the local government code to draw a clear distinction between rezonings “that only affect an individual lot or a limited area of contiguous lots or land” and a “comprehensive revision of the regulations or boundaries.”

The bill specifies that site-specific zoning cases could be challenged via “valid petition,” in which either the owner of the property or (more commonly) the owners of 20% of the land with 200 feet protest the rezoning. In those cases, City Council needs a ¾ majority to adopt the rezoning.

However, comprehensive rewrites of the code or code amendments that apply uniformly across the city could not be challenged via valid petition.

The city of Austin and plenty of other legal experts have argued that this was always the case. However, a year ago Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer disagreed, telling City Council that as long as property owners were objecting to their properties being rezoned as part of a new LDC, Council needed a ¾ majority to approve it. That would mean nine out of 11. That essentially put the new code on hold, since at the time there were only seven members of Council in favor.

Who’s behind this bill? Will it pass?

From my very limited knowledge of Cyrier, gleaned largely from reading his online biography, he is a fitting author of this bill. He is a general contractor by trade and has served on the executive board of the Real Estate Council of Austin in the past. I don’t know much about Johnson — this bill was not included on the list of legislative priorities he unveiled a few months ago.

I also have no read on this bill’s chances of success at this time. Because the Lege is only in session for 140 days every two years, bills that are not a top priority among the chamber’s leaders often die simply because the clock runs out.

One group that is involved in pushing for the legislation is Texans for Housing, whose board of directors includes five people from Houston, DFW, College Station and Austin. The one local is urbanist activist Dan Keshet.

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. The traditional business-oriented wing of the GOP would be inclined to defer to industry (RECA etc) in support of this legislation, especially since they know that this is aimed at helping cities lower barriers to development, not raise them.

However, the defense of single-family zoning has become a rallying cry among some conservatives over the past year. Trump tried to extend the racial anxiety prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests into zoning, claiming that Democrats were going to “abolish the suburbs,” and force middle class people to live near undesirables. Empower Texans, the far right pressure group, has expressed support for those fighting Austin’s new LDC, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Patrick, who largely controls what happens in the Senate, is sympathetic to their argument.

Finally, what will Democrats, especially Austin-area Democrats, say about the bill? At this point, I have no clue.

So, what happens if it passes?

Immediately after the Soifer decision, Council voted 7-4 to appeal, but two of those seven (Flannigan & Garza) are now gone and it’s far from certain that there remains a majority in favor of pursuing the appeal. Mackenzie Kelly was explicit in opposing the city’s position during her campaign, while Vanessa Fuentes’ views on the LDC are less clear.

If this bill passes, all of the questions about the appeal and the lawsuit become moot, but the fight over land use reform would be far from over. There are only five members of Council who support the new LDC, while four (Tovo, Pool, Kitchen, Alter) are opposed and the two new members have expressed varying degrees of opposition.

The big question mark is Fuentes, who has said she believes there must be more market-rate housing in all parts of the city but said she wanted to see greater anti-displacement protections in the new LDC. What would it take to get her on board? And does Adler have the stomach to approve a new code 6-5?

This is an excerpt from the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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