Streamlining the Development Process and Creating a More User-Friendly Code

Nov 29, 2017 - 9:46 am

Most Austin residents don’t need to use the City’s land development code on a regular basis, but when they do want to remodel their homes, or perhaps build a new building, they find navigating the current code a difficult and complex process. Austin’s development community also experiences complexity, delays, and unpredictability in using the current code, adding costs and uncertainties to the construction and remodeling of buildings that accommodate new residential, retail, and commercial uses. These costs are passed onto the residents and businesses in higher rents and sales prices. To address these and other pressing issues, the City has undertaken CodeNEXT, a major rewrite of the land development code.

Austin’s land development code, written nearly 30 years ago, has been amended hundreds of times to address the deficiencies of the base zoning districts in our growing and changing city. Today, Austin has more than 400 possible combinations of various zoning districts, which makes review, interpretation, and decision-making a complex, lengthy, and unpredictable process for property owners, builders, and even City staff.

When the CodeNEXT team began its work, it conducted detailed research to pinpoint what was not working with the current code and how that was getting in the way of realizing the City’s goal of creating more compact, complete, and connected communities. We learned in our 2014 Code Diagnosis that Austin’s base zoning districts – the rules that regulate the use of land and what and how much can be built where – were out of date, didn’t address neighborhood residents’ desires for harmonious development, and didn’t meet the demands required by Austin’s growth. The zoning districts in the new code better match conditions in Austin and provide more tools to protect neighborhood character while implementing the vision of Imagine Austin.

We also found that information within the code is not easy to find or user-friendly, and sometimes different parts of the code contain conflicting information. The terminology is inconsistent, and permitting procedures are hard to follow, not only for the public but also for City staff.

New language in CodeNEXT makes regulations easier to understand and navigate for both property owners and officials. Graphics and illustrations visually explain regulations, and a new zone organization and naming convention improves the code’s clarity and readability.

CodeNEXT also revises aspects of the permitting process to address existing challenges. Under the current process, a property owner can seek a zoning change or a conditional overlay to change the entitlements on their property. The problem with a conditional overlay is that it is a transaction-based, highly negotiated, and time-consuming process that creates thousands of customized zones, no two of which are alike. This is not best practice in development regulations and is administratively unsustainable, especially in a city of Austin’s size.

The new base zones offer a broad palette of options that have been tailored and calibrated to meet Austin’s conditions, thereby reducing the need for conditional overlays. If a property owner of a large or complex development does have a specific circumstance in which none of the new zones works well, they can still apply for a planned unit development.

CodeNEXT also introduces a new approach to the permitting process to create more consistency and clarity. In addition to conditional use permits, the new code offers minor use permits. A conditional use permit goes to the land use commission (Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission) for review, while a minor use permit goes to the Development Services Director. These permits make clear what can and can’t be done on a property, providing more equity and certainty in the process. The minor use permit can be appealed to the Land Use Commission, and noticing requirements are consistent with the current code.

Rewriting a long, complex code that’s more than 30 years old is a big undertaking. Public feedback has helped us identify mistakes and oversights we made in the drafting process. For example, community members told us that zoning change notification timelines in Draft 1 were not consistent. We reviewed all the timeframes, and now Draft 2 clarifies the notification process and ensures notification timeframes are not shortened.

The CodeNEXT Team continues to seek feedback on the code to improve the final product. We currently are evaluating all of the input from Draft 2 to develop the staff’s recommendation, which we anticipate will be released by Feb. 12, 2018.