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Austin officials backing away from controversial rewrite of land-use regulations

Amid a fierce battle over the city's attempts to improve traffic and combat housing unaffordability, Austin leaders are looking to drop CodeNEXT and start a new process.

Construction in downtown Austin's warehouse district on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday asked his fellow City Council members to consider scrapping a years-long, multimillion-dollar effort to rewrite the city’s land-use regulations and start again. And it quickly appeared that he had enough votes to do so, according to KUT.

The massive initiative to rewrite existing land-use rules, called CodeNEXT, has divided residents, officials and developers in the state’s capitol for several months. In comments posted on a City Council message board, Adler indicated he still wants to overhaul how land is developed in the city but didn’t detail what new process might replace CodeNEXT.

“We had been hoping for a process that would bring Austin together and result in a code that would help us solve many of our biggest challenges, however CodeNEXT and the community discussion surrounding it have largely been contentious and marked with misinformation,” he said. “Preying on the worst fears of Austinites is a near surefire way to kill anything, but we know that that our city’s challenges and the need to re-write our land development code remain.”

City leaders for years have grappled with how to combat increased housing unaffordability, socioeconomic segregation and traffic-choked roads — problems Adler said can be traced to the city’s development code.

“We must improve on what’s happening now,” he said. “We can’t keep losing long-time residents because they can’t afford to stay in their neighborhoods.”

Council members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, Delia Garza and Pio Renteria co-authored a resolution that calls on the city manager to develop a different process for changing land-use rules, KUT reported.

A group of neighborhood associations, advocacy groups and the Austin Chamber of Commerce last year joined the nonprofit Evolve Austin to advocate for denser development and reframe debates around the city’s growth. One of those groups, the Real Estate Council of Austin, released a statement Wednesday that said CodeNEXT ignored input from experts and failed at achieving its own stated goals.

“On something as important and complex as the land development code, getting it right is much more important than getting something passed quickly,” the group said in a prepared statement. “We will remain at the table to provide additional technical expertise to make sure the community gets this right for the future of our city.”

In his message earlier in the day, Adler questioned whether rhetoric around CodeNEXT had “poisoned” the process to the point that city officials can longer complete it.

“When a long-time resident says with a straight face that CodeNEXT means every property in their neighborhood will be able to sell alcohol commercially, or a neighborhood listserv warns that most every home in their neighborhood will be demolished and each lot subdivided into 25-foot widths, then something has gone horribly wrong,” he said.

The mayor also indicated that some of the research and public input gleaned during CodeNEXT’s many iterations could be used on a future attempt at a development code overhaul.

Council members’ attempts to drop CodeNEXT come just weeks after a judge ordered the city to place an item on November’s ballot that would let voters decide whether they have to approve future land-use rewrites.

"It affects everybody and every property in the City of Austin," Fred Lewis, president of Save Our City Austin, told KXAN last month.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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