A city statute that governs the makeup of Austin’s Planning Commission is at the center of a legal challenge from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office.
Paxton is taking legal action to remove eight members of the 13-member commission, citing a rule that limits how many commissioners can have some sort of affiliation with real estate or land use interests.
In 1994, Austin voters approved a proposition that added members to the commission, as well as tightened guidelines from 1973 on the number of planning commissioners who could be “directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development."
“It was a major issue, because Austin was in one of its boom periods, as it is now,” former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd said.
Much like the debate at City Hall today, Todd said the 1994 proposition stemmed from concern that the Planning Commission would be dominated by real estate interests.
“It’s important then [that] we allowed for there to be people with real estate interest on the commission,” he said, “but they needed to be at a minority position, and the goal was to have it be transparent and to make sure that we had an unbiased group that could speak collectively as to the zoning issues at play.”
Still, it’s difficult to say just where the city draws this line. The statute governing the makeup of the Planning Commission says that only a third of the group can be “directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development,” but it doesn’t define what that means.
Nina Rinaldi is a board member with AURA, a local group that advocates for higher-density housing. She said virtually anyone could fit the description outlined in the statute.
“Any homeowner has a direct connection to real estate because the largest component of your personal wealth if you own a home is all tied up in a piece of real estate,” Rinaldi said. “Even renters, I think you could argue, are indirectly connected to real estate and development because land development patterns cause their rent to go up or down.”
The Austin City Council has opened the door to putting more specific rules for the makeup of the Planning Commission on the ballot in November. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the city said the changes "would introduce a removal process for members of the Commission.”
Rinaldi said she doesn’t think that more specific guidelines are the answer. She said she's concerned about what she sees as suspicious attitudes toward people who have expertise in land use issues.
Others, like Austin lawyer Fred Lewis, say the city statute is meant to be interpreted broadly. Lewis filed a complaint with Travis County last year, citing what he saw as the commission's illegal makeup and calling for an investigation.
“When it says ‘directly or indirectly connected’ to land development and real estate, to me, that clearly includes architects,” Lewis said. “It clearly includes engineers. The problem is that the city didn’t want to comply with the charter.”