Austin City Council
4:01 pm
Wed January 30, 2013

Should Lobbyists Help Rewrite Austin’s Land Development Code?

An admittedly wonky but far-reaching undertaking at the City of Austin is getting started – and the question of lobbyists’ roles in what happens next is putting pressure on the Austin City Council.

All development in Austin is governed by city code – zoning, land uses and just about everything conceivable in the built environment. The Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan – the recently-passed blueprint for the city’s long-term growth – calls for a revision of the city’s dense, endlessly-amended development code, and in December the council obliged. Late last year, it passed a resolution calling for an 11-member advisory group to craft changes and revisions to the code.

The resolution laid out requirements for serving, including one hard and fast rule: lobbyists and their employees can’t serve on the group. But now an item from three council members would change that.

Item 29 on this Thursday’s council agenda, from city council member Bill Spelman, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, would allow up to four lobbyists to serve on the Land Development Code group.

The proposal hasn’t sat well with neighborhood advocates. One North Austin neighborhood coalition reprinted an e-mail from a member predicting consequences of apocalyptic proportions: “no limit of [‘commercial’ short-term rentals], no more limitation on outdoor music venues, no more compatibility standards, no more heritage trees, no more impervious cover limits or height restrictions, and, say hello to stealth dorms.”

At the council’s Tuesday work session, Tovo emphasized it was “an understatement” to say she was very concerned by the proposal. “Could you help me understand what the rationale is here,” Tovo asked, “for veering from a city policy that seems to me to make very good sense, of making sure that people who are hired to lobby on behalf of their clients with specific focus of land use issues … why we would veer from that practice and allow them to participate in the rewriting of our land development code?”

“Because they know more about the land development code than anybody else,” Bill Spelman countered. “Because they’re frequent users of the land development code. Because they have an interest in the land development code making sense, being easy for them and for their clients to use, and because I think they can offer us good advice.”

Spelman went on to say he was confounded why “we should go to such great lengths to avoid including somebody who does this for pay and only include amateurs and not professionals … The Olympics doesn’t require only amateur status anymore, why should we?”

“I am flummoxed by how any of those lobbyists could accurately and honestly account for their conflicts of interest on a regular basis,” Tovo said.

In opposition, Tovo was joined by Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez, who said “If you’re designing a prison, you don’t allow the inmates to design it.” That leaves the item’s three sponsors and Chris Riley, who didn’t say much at Tuesday’s work session other than that the prohibition on lobbyists was initially added by the council, not city code – implying a willingness to offer his support.

Sheryl Cole also said she would offer an amendment capping potential lobbyist seats at three, not four, and include make the cap apply to both lobbyists and developers. Still, with opinions this hot on the subject, it seems half-measures will do little to cool tempers.

The Austin City Council meets tomorrow at 10 a.m.