The Commissioner — Fall 2011

Commission Profile

Austin Expands Planning Duties

For the past decade, land-use and zoning oversight in Austin, Texas, has been shared by two panels. "The planning commission is required by charter," notes Jerry Rusthoven, the city's manager of neighborhood planning and zoning. But an escalating workload and increasing desire to focus on neighborhood planning led to the creation of the zoning and platting commission (ZAP) in 2001.

"Some wondered where we were going to find 16 people, rather than just the nine planning commission members," says Rusthoven. "It turned out to be easier because instead of meeting every Tuesday night until all hours, commissioners only have to attend meetings twice a month."

The planning commission focuses on longer term issues, such as comprehensive and neighborhood plan development, while ZAP handles more of the current planning. They both, to different extents, consider zoning and subdivision requests. The planning commission's authority lies in areas covered by the 28 existing neighborhood plans; ZAP reviews requests from all other parts of the city.

Rules governing the two panels differ in that planning commissioners serve for two years while a term on ZAP runs three years. The city recently instituted term limits — nine consecutive years. "From a staff perspective, it's been helpful to have commissioners with some tenure; you hate to lose that institutional knowledge," says Rusthoven.

"Change can be good, too," says Dave Sullivan, chair of the planning commission. "I'd like to involve more younger people in what we do and this will help. Part of what I worry about is not that corruption creeps in but that boredom sets in. There's a risk of becoming less attentive when something becomes routine."

Currently, planning commission and ZAP members are appointed by the city council without regard to geography. That could change, notes Carol Haywood, planning manager of Austin's Comprehensive Division. Austin's mayor has suggested moving from all at-large seats to six single-member districts and two at-large seats, in addition to the at-large mayoral seat. "If we go to that, I would anticipate a larger geographic representation on the commissions," she says.

Sullivan would support greater geographic diversity on city boards. "Of nine members on the planning commission, only five zip codes are represented. The most recent member to be appointed lives just a block away from me."

ZAP and planning commission members put in anywhere from 10 hours per week to 10 hours per meeting, depending on the meeting, says Betty Baker, a former planning commission member who has served as chair of the zoning and platting commission since its inception. "Occasionally we'll be familiar enough with a site that we don't have to visit it, but not often."

Technology has, to some extent, reduced preparation time. More than that, says Sullivan, it has enhanced commissioners' understanding. "We can access Google Earth and look at the streets and neighborhood in different ways. We can get traffic counts online and see how much traffic there is on an arterial road."

While there is no formal training for new members, both Haywood and Rusthoven have developed information packets, which they share during an initial orientation. Commissioners are APA members and the city often pays for them to attend the state APA conference. There is no compensation for service.

Commission service has been an eye-opener for Sullivan, a former neighborhood activist. "People on the outside tend to look at things as either black or white. There are many gradations, which makes the decisions much harder. Serving on the planning commission gives you a very different perspective."

Short-Term Safety, Long-Term Vision

"Some of the issues we deal with can be frustrating to people, especially subdivisions, where state law compels us to approve them if they meet all the requirements," says Dave Sullivan, chair of Austin's planning commission. "They complain: 'Why have a public meeting if you can't do anything?' Public meetings shine a light on the problem. While we may not have discretion now, we can try to change things so that we have discretion in the future."

It's not just the public that brings potential issues to the commission's attention. "Many years back, firefighters did a tour of the western part of the city and told us that much of the development going on looked like California, where people would build on top of a hill, allowing the valley to fill up with brush," says Sullivan. "We did change some rules — shortened block length, required additional outlets, and looked at setbacks. Texas is a property rights state so you can't tell people they can't build there. I suspect that the [past summer's] fires will renew interest in safety."

Austin's population growth — up from about 656,000 in 2000 to 812,000 this year — has given rise to many issues "such as how best to do infill, compatibility within neighborhoods, housing — everything from large homes to garage apartments to granny flats — and tree preservation," adds Sullivan.

"Change is going to occur no matter what we do," Sullivan says. "To adapt to population growth, we need to focus on infill. By filling in downtown and along the major corridors, we will increase the number of people who can use public transportation or make trips on foot."

Many of these concerns have been discussed, in forums large and small, as the city prepares its first comprehensive plan in more than three decades. "One of the issues to come out of the process is how neighborhood plans relate to the comprehensive plan," says Carol Haywood, planning manager of Austin's Comprehensive Division. "Neighborhoods don't want the comprehensive plan dictating what they can do. So we are in the process of working all that out." The plan is expected to come before the planning commission in January.

The issue of short-term home rentals is another that will eventually make its way to the commission; one of its committees currently is exploring the topic, Sullivan says. Over the past year, concerns have been raised about how the rental of homes — by vacationers or other short-term users — affects neighborhood stability and safety. As many as 500 Austin-area homes have reportedly been listed for rent with companies such as HomeAway. "It's a tough issue," Sullivan adds. "But HomeAway is a national company, so I'm sure we're not the only ones grappling with this."