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Austin's efforts to revamp land-use rules grind to a halt

A yearslong effort that included spending more than $8 million and formulating a blueprint of some 1,500 pages for how Austin uses its coveted land has ground to a halt. (Photo: CBS Austin)

A yearslong effort that included spending more than $8 million and formulating a blueprint of some 1,500 pages for how Austin uses its coveted land has ground to a halt.

The Austin City Council voted Thursday to stop a sweeping rewrite of the city's land-use rules, taking action a week after Mayor Steve Adler said "the process has been misunderstood and poisoned," in part by misinformation and outlandish claims like new zoning laws allowing for the random demolition of homes.

The council approved a resolution saying the proposed land-development code, known as CodeNext, "is no longer a suitable mechanism to achieve its stated goals." Its course was beset by infighting and other complications, such as hundreds of amendments that were introduced over time that proved unmanageable.

City administrators are now charged with determining a path for ultimately adopting broad regulations guiding the use of land in Texas' capital city.

But despite the clashes involving an array of neighborhood and other interest groups, much of the draft work — the policy and proposals pitched over countless hours by advisory boards, planners, civic groups and others — will likely frame any future rules the council adopts.

Adler says it's fair to criticize city leaders for trying to swallow "more than we can chew in one bite," but he notes that Austin's growing pains are interrelated and one problem can't be tackled without considering the impact on another.

"Our most significant challenges are getting worse, not better: transportation, mobility, affordability, the issues of gentrification," he told The Associated Press. "And we all recognize that our existing land-use code is not contributing to solutions."

Austin leaders say they've always pushed for a transparent process but were hampered by ever-evolving proposals and knocking down false claims that became a game of whack-a-mole.

Other U.S. metro regions that have undertaken land-use reforms found success by being as transparent as possible and avoiding top-down decisions in which new laws are foisted on people, said Oscar Perry Abello, editor of Next City, a nonprofit promoting sustainable, equitable policies for cities.

"The history of these land-use decisions has been one in which certain communities — based on race, based on class — have been ignored," Abello said. "If you want to do big land-use changes, then you have to start with recognizing that history."

The regulations Austin relies on to manage growth are nearly 35 years old, dating back to a time when its population was about 420,000 and the city was best known as a musical oasis rather than a high-tech hub that is drawing worldwide talent.

The number of people living in Austin will exceed 1 million in the next few years, causing traffic jams to be as constant as the Texas heat and sending housing prices soaring.

The land-use laws are an outdated heap of Byzantine regulations ill-suited to accommodate the kind of dynamic growth Austin is experiencing. CodeNext was meant to bring about an array of changes, including establishing areas of residential and commercial density connected by mass transit. What transpired, however, were deep divisions that drove apart different interest groups, such as pro-density proponents and neighborhood preservationists.

City Councilor Ann Kitchen said the council's action Thursday isn't a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The process needs a "reboot," she said, that takes advantage of the work that's been done to this point.

"One of the key issues was a lack of clear communication and that led to a real decline in trust," Kitchen said. "It allowed anxiety and fear to grow."

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