The Path Forward: A Design for a Simpler and Improved Code

Aug 9, 2017 - 3:32 pm

CodeNEXT is the City of Austin initiative to rewrite our outdated and complex land development code. It sets out a number of changes that reflect the community’s values as espoused in Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan. CodeNEXT is designed to preserve what we love about Austin while helping us grow into the city we imagine. Since the release of the first draft of the code in January 2017, we have received a tremendous amount of community feedback, all of which has helped to clarify what people like and what they want to see improved. This input is being used to shape and refine the second draft of the code and map.

Why do we need a new land development code?

Austin’s existing land development code was adopted more than 30 years ago and has since been amended hundreds of times. This confusing accumulation of changes has made understanding and using the code difficult and time-consuming for everyone. Homeowners have to search through many different parts of the code to find basic information about what they can or can’t do on their property. Builders find that the complexity, inconsistency, and lack of clear visuals in the current code results in different interpretations of what’s allowed. This, in turn, leads to uncertainty, delay, and increased costs for homeowners, builders, and the City.

Another problem with the current code is that it has a “one-size-fits-all” approach. For example, on the residential portion of the code, it treats most properties the same, regardless of the neighborhood they’re in. For instance, neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and Circle C Ranch have a distinct and different feeling to anyone who visits them, but the current code is blind to what makes each neighborhood special. Over the years, we’ve made many efforts to fix these shortcomings, using tools such as conditional overlays, the McMansion ordinance, compatibility, and residential design standards. But these many layers of regulation have only added to the code’s complexity and unpredictability.

In addition, our existing code doesn’t provide all the tools our growing city needs to effectively shape and manage growth. For example, today’s code primarily allows single-family homes and large apartment buildings. This limited range of housing options doesn’t provide enough choices to meet the needs of Austinites.

What’s different in the new code?

The new code addresses the “one-size-fits-all” approach to residential zoning. The proposed base zoning districts consider what’s special about different places in Austin and incorporate regulations to protect them. Existing McMansion standards and compatibility are built into the new districts, and zone standards are applied more consistently across diverse types of development.

CodeNEXT also seeks to increase the range of housing types available to Austinites by offering more “missing middle” housing options. These types of housing include duplexes, rowhouses, accessory dwelling units, and live/work spaces – all of which are building types that fall between single-family homes and large apartment complexes. This allows for a greater diversity of housing types to suit Austin’s growing range of housing needs.

In addition, the new code is more clearly laid out and organized, making it easier for laypeople and code experts alike to understand what they’re allowed to do on a property. We heard that the first draft of CodeNEXT did not go far enough toward our goal of a simple and predictable code. In response, the upcoming draft of the code will:

  • Include a single spectrum of zones with a more consistent and intuitive naming convention;
  • Be organized using a clear labeling system to make it easier to read and search;
  • Make new chapter, article, and section labels more intuitive and easier to understand; and
  • Use more diagrams, tables, and drawings to convey code standards clearly.

These new features give us a simpler and more predictable code that’s accessible to all Austinites, not just code experts.

Together, these changes help give us the tools to realize the vision of Imagine Austin, which includes preserving our livability, protecting our natural resources, and promoting prosperity for all.

When will these changes be available to the public?

In September, the community will be presented updates to the code text and zoning map and will be asked to provide feedback on this second draft of CodeNEXT. The Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission will also hold work sessions starting in September to collect input from the community and develop the commissions’ recommendations. Input from these meetings will be factored into a third draft, which is expected to be released in November. The City Council is scheduled to begin consideration of CodeNEXT in February 2018, with a final vote in April 2018.

Help us get it right.

Austin’s Land Development Code is getting its most significant update in 30 years. As we work toward adoption of the new code, we invite you to review and comment on the draft code document, ask questions, and stay connected.