We haven’t brought it up much in these pages, but the Texas Legislature has been in town since late January. So we probably need to take a look at proposed bills that would target Austin. In a fairly recent phenomenon, many of the bills are written to target other major cities as well; as opposed to the traditional “Austin bashing.” In most instances, however, Austin is still the primary target. That is certainly the case with the group of proposed laws we will discuss today, bills targeting municipal development and building regulations. 

A rather amazing confluence is occurring on a number of such bills. Republican members of the legislature are proposing state laws which are consistent with policies backed by self proclaimed “progressives” on the Austin City Council; both members of the current Council and the previous Casar-Adler Councils. The bills particularly have to do with regulations related to the previous Councils’ failed push to rewrite the Land Development Code and to upzone virtually the entire City in the process — especially single family neighborhoods in the central city. 

Proposed bills of this sort include: 

  • Attempts to weaken petition rights of property owners opposing rezoning of their property, or nearby properties; 
  • Weakening the powers of cities to impose compatibility restrictions to protect single family homes; and 
  • Drastically curtailing the power of large cities to establish minimum lot sizes. 

These things might sound dull, but they are sure to eventually cause a lot of excitement, not necessarily of the positive kind, if they make it through the legislative process. Also, these bills are either consistent with, or in the spirit of, policies that the Casar-Adler Councils spent eight years trying to impose on Austin — in contravention of state law. A solid majority of the current Council have made clear that they support similar policies, or even exactly the same policies and philosophy/ideology.

Some “progressive” members of the current Council have said they do not support the state imposing such policies from the Capitol. There is no evidence yet, however, that the policy confluence with far right Republicans is causing Council Members to reevaluate their policies or ideologies.

So, what is happening here? Have right wing Republican legislators from far outside of Austin just magically come to the same conclusions as the Austin “progressives” who they consistently slam — and vice-versa? And, are the right wing Republicans pursuing these strategies for the same avowed racial justice reasons that Austin “progressives” proclaim, but have yet to explain in any coherent detail?

Or, could the motivations of both the right wing Republicans and the “progressive” Democratic Austin Council Members be more in line with the thesis we have struck before in these pages, that this is all about serving the interests of developers who contribute to their campaigns? In fact numerous Austin real estate interests have contributed to some legislators carrying the bills, although that alone probably doesn’t explain the confluence. 

Also thought to be a major influence on the filing of these bills is a new group called Texans for Reasonable Solutions. It consists of several wealthy libertarian leaning California transplants, along with libertarian founder of Whole Foods John Mackey, and Greg Anderson, a member of Austin’s Planning Commission and one of Austin’s most aggressive and convinced new urbanists. Anderson is listed as an “advisor” to the group.

OK, let’s take a look at some of the specific bills/proposed laws.

Trying to Weaken Petition Rights

HB 1514 from Justin Holland of Rockwall takes aim at property owner petition rights. Under long standing state law, property owners within 200 feet of a property proposed for rezoning have “petition rights.” It works like this. If owners of 20% or more of property within 200 feet of a zoning case sign protest petitions then that constitutes a “valid petition.” With a valid petition in place, zoning changes require a three-fourths super majority to be approved. For the Austin City Council, that means nine of 11 votes. Holland’s bill would raise the 20% requirement to 50%. 

This proposed law relates directly to Austin’s failed Land Development Code rewrite. During that process the Council majority tried to deny petition rights entirely, through the employment of a novel legal theory. A court ruled that the Council broke the law by denying petition rights.

Holland is no stranger to real estate and development issues. For example the first paragraph of his official House biography describes him thusly, “Justin Holland is a 2nd-generation real estate broker who specializes in selling homes, buildings and land. He was raised in Rockwall and is a graduate of Rockwall High School. Justin’s father, Lance Holland, was an original founder of Regal Realtors in 1991.”

According to the Texas Legislature Online website, Representative Carl O. Sherman of DeSoto, just south of Dallas, is carrying a “duplicate” bill. This appears to be an example of a more traditional pro-developer bipartisanship within the Legislature. Sherman is a Democrat and, according to his Texas House website, a “Senior Pastor in the Church of Christ” as well as a “a transformational leader in faith, government and business.” (According to opponents of the bill Holland is no longer pursuing it and Sherman has taken over sponsorship.)

Attempting To Remove Compatibility Standards

SB 491 from State Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola would prevent cities with populations of more than 725,000 from using compatibility standards, or any other regulation, to limit building height, unless that proposed building is closer than 50 feet to a single family property. The current Austin compatibility standards regulate the height of buildings up to 540 feet from single family lots; allowing 120 feet at 540 feet away. The current Austin height limit at 50 feet away is 40 feet high and goes up gradually from there.

Austin Council Member Chito Vela, in particular, is a vocal and active critic of compatibility standards.

Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola (l) and Austin City Council Member Chito Vela (r) don’t share many political opinions, but it turns out they have remarkably similar views when it comes to development regulations, or lack thereof.

Hughes’ distaste for regulation does not extend to all issues. For example the Texas Tribune, among others, credited Hughes as the “author” of Texas’s ultra restrictive abortion law and also as the Senate leader in its passage. The Tribune also wrote that in the last legislative session Hughes was a leader on “legislation cracking down on what Republicans called critical race theory in public schools.” 

Hughes has also received significant contributions from Austin political interests, including the Real Estate Council of Austin’s “Good Government PAC.” (Austin Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro did a very interesting analysis of the development rules in Hughes’ hometown of Mineola, “What’s Wrong With Mineola,” and compared them to what Hughes is trying to impose on big city residents.)

Thrust to Reduce and Restrict Minimum Lot Size

SB 1787 by Paul Bettencourt of Western Harris County dives into the fray with proposed dramatic changes to minimum lot size regulations. This is also consistent with new urbanist scripture. Cities and towns in counties with populations over 300,000 would not be able to require minimum lots to be “wider than 20 feet” or “deeper than 60 feet.” And, no city in such counties would be able to limit lot size in a way “that results in (allowing) fewer than 31.1 units per acre.” This of course strikes directly at the very concept of single family housing, once considered to be integral to the American Dream. The new restrictions, however, would not affect “rules or deed restrictions `of homeowners associations, which are mostly in suburban areas with heavy concentrations of Republicans.

Council Members Natasha Harper Madison (l) and Zo Qadri (r) purport to share similar ideologies, but until recently few realized they shared any ideological beliefs with Republican State Senator Paul Bettencourt (c) of western Harris County, or with Bryan Hughes.

Move to Remove Parkland Dedication Requirements for Commercial Developers

Another bill from Bryan Hughes, SB 558, does not relate directly to Austin’s LDC rewrite quest, but is tied to the bottom line of developers and to the quality of life for urban residents as Texas cities grow. Currently Austin requires developers to dedicate parkland, in a formula tied to the size of their development, or to pay a fee in lieu of. Under SB 558, Hughes would weaken the powers of cities to require parkland dedication from developers, including eliminating the power to require parkland dedication on non-residential projects.

None of the bills discussed above have made it out of committee yet, but there’s still time. 

Troxclair Bills

Before leaving this section, I want to note the petulant assault on Austin’s interests by former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair. Troxclair is now a member of the Texas House from Lakeway. Her District covers all of Blanco, Burnet, Gillespie and Kendall counties, but only 6% of Travis County and has less than a thousand residents of Austin. 

Troxclair’s long list of proposed laws strike at a number of Austin functions, including the City’s control of its own public electric utility, Austin Energy. We’ll have more on these bills in a future segment. In the meantime this Statesman piece captures the spirit of what Troxclair is doing, while this one goes into a bit more detail on the vengeful particulars.

Questions to Ask Your Council Members

Just in case learning that they share ideology with far right Republicans puts any Austin Council Members in a reflective mood here are a few suggestions for questions that they should answer; and that they should ask themselves. The Independent encourages citizens to ask these questions of Council as well, and any other questions that readers may have.

  • Does the fact that right wing Republicans in the Texas Legislature are now carrying bills that support your ideology on development regulations make you question your viewpoint, or your conviction that your views are “progressive?”
  • You and many of your core backers often claim that higher density results in lower housing prices and more affordable housing. Can you provide examples of where this has happened, and in particular provide examples that are relevant to Austin?
  • More specifically, where has affordable housing resulted from rezoning single family neighborhoods to allow four to six units per lot?
  • Can you name a City in which the policies you are advocating — particularly including wholesale upzoning of single family neighborhoods — has resulted in providing affordable housing, especially on the scale needed in Austin? Please provide specific examples and cite how this can be a parallel to Austin.

(Photo at top by Adela Mancías)

This article was updated to reflect that, according to opponents of the petition rights bill, Justin Holland has dropped his sponsorship of it. Also a sentence saying Holland is carrying a companion to Hughes’ compatibility standards bill was cut because that is inaccurate. The Independent apologizes for the error.


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