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Development Code Overhaul Won't Come Easy

Callie Hernandez

Austin is completely rewriting its building, zoning and land use codes for the first time in almost 30 years. The Land Development Code has remained virtually untouched for so long, in part, because of its length and complexity.

Jackie Goodman is so familiar with the Land Development Code that the acronym LDC just rolls off her tongue. During her 12 years on the Austin City Council and even more on the Planning Commission, the LDC was Goodman’s go-to document. So she can explain what’s in it.

“Anything to do with land,” Goodman said. “It’s just so full of things that you cannot even begin to describe what all is in there. You can get a hard copy if you’ve got a few thousand dollars to spend on copies.”

Goodman told me a big part of it is city rules for land use: There are rules about building heights, environmental rules, zoning ordinances, transportation, signage and much more.

“The LDC speaks to the processes, and not just those that are mandated by the state, but those that we have devised here for our particular conditions and assets and preferences,” she said.

Those are the things that the city of Austin wanted to keep in mind when planning: the city’s conditions, assets and development preferences.

A couple of years ago, Austin began gathering citizen input on how the city should manage its growth over the next 30 years. In 2012, the city adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.

Austin city planner Matt Dugan says Imagine Austin is a vision of a city that’s affordable, prosperous, and educated -- goals that have little to do in practical terms with the Land Development Code. But he says there’s one goal that has everything to do with the LDC, and it is the idea of building “complete neighborhoods.”

“It’s where you hopefully have things that you need in your daily life within a short trip,” Dugan said. “There’s job opportunities, there’s different types of housing opportunities, there’s education, places to shop, places to play, parks, things like that.”

The LDC is an old code. It considers land uses from a perspective at least 50 years old and has been revised nearly 200 times in the past decade alone. Dugan says it’ll take time to rewrite.

“Years. We are looking at a four-step process,” he said. “We are going to have a preliminary draft code in 2015.”

The city wants 11 people to serve on an advisory panel that will lead revision discussions. Goodman says that in previous attempts to rewrite portions of the LDC, someone would attempt to remove a rule that, say, was outdated for construction purposes but was still viable for environmental purposes. So in simplifying the codes, the intricacies of land management in a city of close to a million people will not go away.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.