Austin City Council members have voted against putting a CodeNEXT petition to a public vote, instead allowing a threatened lawsuit to proceed and a judge to determine whether the city is required to do so.
“Putting this on the ballot is not proper under law,” said Mayor Steve Adler, who voted with the six-member majority. “[But] I think we should take this action now, take it quickly, so as to give anyone who would want to challenge it the greatest opportunity to have someone check our paper.”
And checked it may certainly be: Attorney Fred Lewis said he will sue.
If a judge rules that the law requires council to put the petition on the ballot, it would have until Aug. 20 to get it in front of November voters.
The citizen-led petition, submitted in March by members of two anti-CodeNEXT groups, did not explicitly call for a vote on CodeNEXT. Instead, it would have asked residents whether they should vote on every big-scale change to the city’s rules governing what can be built and where. If voters approved that, a vote on CodeNEXT would have been raised at a later election.
Adler, who is a lawyer, argued Thursday that state law allows petitions only on initially establishing or repealing zoning, not on changes to existing land rules.
Those who supported the petition did not quite buy this explanation. They said the land development code is about more than just zoning. Many said by not putting a citizen-led petition to a public vote, Austin residents were being denied their democratic rights.
“I do believe that voters have a vote to petition, referendum and a vote on things that negatively impact every parcel of land in this city,” said Ora Houston, who represents a large swath of Central and Northeast Austin and voted to put the petition on the ballot. “And to deny them that right, to me, is a travesty.”
CodeNEXT has further defined the cracks that exist between neighborhood preservationists and people who support denser housing. According to data released today from the U.S. Census Bureau, Austin had the 12th largest population increase among U.S. cities between July 2016 and July 2017.
Last month, council members voted against approving the citizen petition outright – that would have made voting on every rewrite of Austin’s land development code automatic, instead of putting that question on a ballot.
This story has been updated.