Well, folks there’s just too much going on in local government and politics for one person to really be able to keep up and report on it. This week I’m picking one Council item from the flood of items roaring by. And, that’s Mayor Kirk Watson’s initiative to give “robust” notice to homeowners affected by Council Member Leslie Pool’s proposal to change the definition of single family zoning categories, and allow three housing units per existing single family lot. (Many currently allow 2.)
Pool’s proposal combines the three units per lot with reducing minimum lot size to 2,500 square feet, a little less than half the current standard lot. That means six units could be built on any existing standard lot, where there is currently only one unit (or in some cases two). On some larger lots nine, or even 12, units could be built where there is currently one house. (While discussion usually focuses on the standard lot size of 5,750 feet, some Austin single family zoning categories allow smaller lots — although not as small as Pool is proposing. This can be ascertained from walking and driving around town, but is not a fact generally reported in local media.)
So Watson’s notice initiative will be our focus here today. It is far, however, from being the only important item moving through the City process. A bevy of other Council initiated Land Development Code (LDC) changes are making their way through the City system. The City Planning Department recently released a schedule estimating when these items will be ready for final Council consideration. That schedule can be found here, in an eight-page memo.
Mayor Watson took close followers of these initiatives on something of a roller coaster ride over the last week. The ride began on Friday September 15 in the Watson Wire, the Mayor’s newsletter, or blog, which he periodically emails to constituents and posts on the City website. The Watson Wire usually features something of a folksy style which was the case with the post last Friday.
Watson began the post by talking about how on Friday afternoons “the proverbial stuff hits the fan.” Although that is frustrating, continued the Mayor, “I do appreciate getting the heads-up when something big is coming. Being notified, even about something I don’t like or disagree with, allows me to address it, give input, maybe even fix it.”
Shifting to his main point, the Mayor added, “The same applies to how the city government — the Mayor and Council —should give notice to the public on big issues.” He then explained, “we will soon be taking up some pretty big changes to the Land Development Code (LDC) as part of our determined efforts to address Austin’s housing affordability emergency. And getting the public notice process right really matters, since that was one of the issues that sunk the LDC rewrite known as CodeNext (both legally and as a matter of just good government) [parenthesis by Watson].”
Watson added, “from a housing policy perspective, we lost precious time, lots and lots of time.”
At this point we should note that, as exclusively reported in the Austin Independent, City staff estimates that some 170,000 homes could be affected by Pool’s proposal, minus the ones of those that have Homeowners Associations (HOAs), are in Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), or have deed restrictions (Any property owner trying to enforce deed restrictions will likely have to hire a lawyer).
Watson then shifted to the broader issue, even acknowledging that critics of the proposals have valid points, “These are big changes, and some folks have legitimate concerns about how these changes will affect their lives and affect Austin now and in the future.” He then discussed how Austinites are “bitterly divided” on the issue, but insisted, “It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that you’re either 1) for housing and don’t care about neighborhoods; or 2) for protecting neighborhoods and opposed to things that could get us more housing.” He then ventured a guess, “I think a lot (dare I say, most?) of Austinites sit somewhere in the middle between those two poles.”
Next, Watson took a mysterious turn into process and procedure saying, “The first step in this will likely be to have a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and the Planning Commission on certain proposals.” Why this all involved a joint meeting with the Planning Commission Watson did not explain. He just announced that a vote on whether to hold such a meeting would be on the September 21 Council agenda.
The Mayor then returned to the importance of notice and communication, “More communication about what’s going on with LDC changes than is customary — maybe even more than is necessary — will only help this process as we address a formidable challenge. Frankly, greater communication is the least we should do to ensure a credible community discussion of an issue that will define Austin’s future.”
In closing, Watson returned to his opening metaphor. He wished everyone a good weekend, and ended, “As for me, well, it’s Friday and 3:00 is almost here. I’m headed to turn on the fan.”
Which Watson Will Ultimately Emerge?
So what exactly is hitting the fan here? It’s difficult to tell, but let’s try.
First of all, Watson’s stance on notice is consistent with his campaign position. During the campaign Watson got attacked by some of the more vehement new urbanists for having had an anti-CodeNext sign in his yard. Of course when Watson had the anti-CodeNext sign in his yard, many who saw it assumed that he was against CodeNext. That, however, proved to be too simple a formulation for Watson.
In at least one instance on the campaign trail Watson argued that having the anti-CodeNext sign did not mean he was against the substance of CodeNext. It only meant he was against the failure to provide notice.
Watson’s current approach bears some similarities to that campaign dynamic. Note that his focus is calling for notification. At the same time he frames notice as being good for passing the items currently on the table; for instance the lack of notice “sunk the LDC rewrite” and “from a housing policy perspective, we lost precious time, lots and lots of time.” Still, Watson simultaneously holds out the vague possibility that there might be an opportunity to “fix” some flawed aspects of some of the proposals. And, he acknowledges that “some folks have legitimate concerns” about some of the proposals
A big part of all this is Watson’s skill as a professional politician. One could say that he is all over the place. At the same time, however, his is not unreasonable positioning for someone about to preside over this huge issue and the classic Austin battle that is about to ensue. He is for affordable housing. He is for people being notified about potential changes to the laws that affect their homes. He thinks everyone should have a say and that there are reasonable people on both sides.
So, could this be a return of the late 1990s Kirk Watson; the one who negotiated peace settlements — and advances forward — between “bitterly divided” people of that time? For example Watson brokered a peace agreement between environmentalists and the Chamber of Commerce which was central to passing bonds for the first Water Quality Protection Lands, expansion of the Convention Center and flood control in East Austin.
The Kirk Watson who is enthusiastically pushing for homeowner notification certainly seems different than the one who recently co-sponsored the Pool initiative and voted yes to move forward on one after another LDC initiative from Council Members; without raising any questions at all and while ignoring and dismissing the arguments of people who pleaded with him to take a closer look, and to offer alternatives.)
The core question now is whether Watson the peace broker will emerge, or whether his notification push is just a political ploy to carve out a middle path, where he supports notice, but votes with the developer-urbanist side while listening politely to opponents.
Council Backup Deepens the Mystery
Shortly after the Watson Wire hit mailboxes the City of Austin Agenda Office posted the Council agenda and backup material for the upcoming meeting, as they always do on the Friday afternoon before a Council meeting. Within that was agenda item number 55, the mysterious item Watson had mentioned about a joint meeting between the Council and the Planning Commission.
The prose there did not quite live up to the lofty rhetoric of the Watson Wire. First of all there was no plain English explanation of what the item would do if passed. Instead there was a series of unexplained Section numbers of parts of City Code that would be waived under the proposed action. If one searched and found the cited parts of City Code, the Code then referred the reader to a section of state law — a section of state law that could be waived if the Council held a joint meeting with the Planning Commission. And, danged if that didn’t turn out to be the section of state law that requires notification of property owners on zoning cases. So it appeared, at least momentarily, that Watson might be promoting notification on the down-home Watson Wire when he had actually devised a way to get around it.
But delving further into the legal morass, it turned out that taking the joint meeting route allows the Council to devise its own notification approach. And, according to the backup materials posted by the Agenda Office, the “notice requirements” were “described in Exhibit A.”
So Exhibit A, that’s what would clear up any confusion, right? The only problem was that there was no Exhibit A posted in the backup. (And, it still wasn’t posted when the Independent went to press.)
A Dialogue with Watson
It was at this point that I wrote a series of questions and sent them to Mayor Watson. I asked: if there was a plain English version of item 55; whether, given that the item was listed as from the Planning Department, had the Council given direction to the Department. And, had the Mayor worked with the Planning Department “in developing item 55?”
Then, after citing a few quotes from the Watson Wire, I asked if he thought item 55 is “consistent” with those quotes and “with the overall spirit of that post?” I ended by saying, “I realize that when Exhibit A is made available it might answer my questions to some extent, or at least better inform them. But, it is not available.”
That was on Monday morning. The Mayor responded later the same day, typing his answers under my questions in the original email.
First, he offered his own plain English version of the item, “The goal of item 55 is to exceed minimum notice requirements of the law with broad, full, robust notice.”
He said he didn’t know whether individual members of the Council met with the Planning Department. As for himself, “I met with the Director of the Planning Dept. and Counsel in which I emphasized that we must have a broad, full and robust notice process. I am clear that I want the City, if it errs, to err on the side of more notice. A Council resolution hasn’t been considered.”
And, does he think item 55 is consistent with his statements in the Watson Wire? “It will be, if I am successful in achieving my goals. I understand the cynicism of some and that’s why I am saying what I’m saying (including what you quote) and will be acting on it. While the item seems to be difficult to understand or is read with a cynical eye, the action hasn’t occurred.”
And, does he think it is consistent with his promises during his campaign to restore trust in regard to proposed LDC changes? “It will be, if I am successful in achieving my goals. I understand the cynicism of some and that’s why I am saying what I’m saying (including what you quote) and will be acting on it. While the item seems to be difficult to understand or is read with a cynical eye, the action hasn’t occurred.”
Watson also responded to an offer I made within a prologue to some of the questions in which I wrote that item 55 “appears to be a way for the current Council to avoid complying with that part of the statute on notification that caused the previous Council to lose in court (along with also trying to ignore petition rights). Please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect or if you disagree with it. ”
Watson wrote under this passage, “As indicated above, the goal of item 55 is to exceed minimum notice requirements of the law with broad, full, robust notice. As I keep saying, including in the items you quoted, I want the City to go beyond what the law might require and plan to do all I can to assure that the City does that.”
Pendulum Swings (Partially) Back at Council Work Session
The next morning, Tuesday September 19, the Council held a work session where items from the upcoming Thursday agenda could be pulled and discussed. Item 55 was pulled and Watson kicked off the discussion by calling Trish Link of the Law Department to the microphone. Link then said that Exhibit A, if item 55 is passed by the Council, would “give mailed notice to every (affected) parcel within the City’s jurisdiction.” The notice would be for three public hearings — the joint meeting between the Planning Commission and City Council, a Planning Commission hearing and a Council hearing.
Link added that “Exhibit A will be posted into backup later today or tomorrow.”
Link also said that staff was recommending to move forward with only the three units per lot aspect of Pool’s proposal and to come back after the first of the year with the lot size reductions.
Council Member Alison Alter asked some probing questions at the work session and noted that several other LDC initiatives will not be covered by the notice provided by item 55. Link said that only the three units per lot and lifting occupancy limits will be included in the notice envisioned in item 55. Alter clearly wanted to know more about Exhibit A, but smiled and said to Watson, “It doesn’t sound like you’re going to tell me any more than that right now. So I’ll wait to get it in writing.”
Alison Alter also expressed reservations about doing notice on Pool’s proposal one piece at a time, i.e. three units per lot this year and a reduction of minimum lot sizes next year. “I am concerned that the challenge really comes when you combine all these pieces together and I’m not sure noticing people on one piece of it and leaving out another chunk that is happening is really fair notice of what is being contemplated.”
Watson then reemphasized his themes from the Watson Wire and from his answers to the Independent. He reasserted, “My hope is that we seek robust, complete notice in a way that people think we have a complete process and they’re not being left out.”
The Mayor later added that “credibility” could be gained, “as we go forward on these (initiatives) with significant, robust, complete, total notice — whatever is the right word.”
How Could a Person Get Cynical About Things Like This?
In closing we should note that the Mayor expressed concern with cynicism in his answers to the Independent. Of course I know that the Mayor wasn’t including me when he mentioned “the cynicism of some” and how some people read things with a “cynical eye.” Nonetheless, let’s explore how someone experiencing cynicism might view Watson’s proposals and also look at some hopeful scenarios.
The hopeful scenario will be from the prospective of someone who hopes, and believes, that the City can address the affordable housing crisis without disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Austinites who are already housed; many of whom are elderly and have long planned to age in place in the homes they purchased and the surroundings they love.
It is not clear yet how the rest of the Council, most of whom have expressed no interest in providing notice, will vote on Watson’s notice proposal. Two of them — Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper Madison voted for the approach that lost in court during the previous Council era.
On Monday Leslie Pool announced her support for notification on the Council Message Board. No other Council Members have chimed in.
Whatever the vote count, Watson says he is is ready “to do all I can” to get a Council majority to support notice. If he follows through on that he could be very formidable. I know because I’ve seen him in action. For example, early in his previous term as Mayor he basically cross examined two different speakers, on two different nights, who he felt were making false or misleading statements. It was an amazing thing to see. He stopped doing that after two times because a number of people who didn’t enjoy watching that persuaded him to cease the practice.
Watson is very unlikely to attempt anything like that with Council Members, but he could find alternative ways to put those skills to use in this situation. Not only can Watson ask tough questions, he knows how to strategize and he knows how to build votes for his initiatives. In fact the approach he is taking on notification is an example of all that. It puts Council Members on the spot. If they want to oppose the Mayor’s quest for homeowners to be notified then they will have to come up with a rationale as to why they don’t want to notify homeowners — including thousands of their own constituents — that they are planning to dramatically alter their living conditions. To the author that just seems like basic human decency. Plus, opposing providing notice seems potentially politically risky in the long run — but I could be wrong.
Providing notice also has the potential to expose some very arrogant attitudes. By that I mean anyone who would put being true to their ideology and ideological backers above the importance of notifying hundreds of thousands of Austin residents about zoning and regulatory changes the City plans to make regarding their homes.
So, in the hopeful view, Watson is trying to do the right thing by fighting for notifying homeowners and he is willing to force the issue with potentially reluctant Council Members.
To the cynical and wary, however, Watson’s plan provides welcome notice to homeowners, but still leaves underlying concerns. For instance the cynical might worry that Watson’s initiative is tied to an upcoming hearing on a new lawsuit over other Council items related to the LDC. The cynical might worry that the Mayor is trying to convince the court that this Council is not as undemocratic as previous Councils and not willing to break state law like the previous group was; yet he will still move forward on similar polices or ones that go beyond anything the Adler Councils attempted. Alison Alter for example said at a previous meeting that Pool’s proposal went beyond anything the Adler Councils tried with CodeNext or follow-ups to that.
Related to the current lawsuit, the cynical might also worry that Watson’s initiative could have stemmed from an executive session on the lawsuit, where Council gave Watson the lead to work with the Planning Department. That of course is only speculation because the public is not allowed in Executive Session and the Council is not supposed to talk about what goes on in Executive Sessions.
If the Council’s urbanist super majority falls in line and supports Watson’s notice initiative, the cynical eye might see that as evidence that this is a strategy tied to the court case. The fact that normally aggressive and vocal new urbanists have been silent on Watson’s notice initiative might be seen as further evidence by the cynical eye.
Another cynical take involves whether the Council schedules the three hearings close together. If the three hearings – joint meeting between Planning Commission and Council, Planning Commission hearing, and City Council hearing — are scheduled close together then cynics will view that as a clever ploy to meet notice legal requirements, while limiting the time any opposition has time to coalesce.
And, related to that, breaking the three units per lot and the reduction of minimum lot size into two separate processes is seen by cynics as a way to hide from homeowners the true impact of what the Council is attempting to do.
Doubtlessly those who look at Watson’s proposals with a “cynical eye” will continue to frustrate the Mayor. And those cynical about City government will likely maintain that they got that way by years of observing and participating in local government and politics.
I know it will be difficult and frustrating for Watson, but — from the hopeful perspective — there might be a way for him to win over some of the cynical; or to at least to cut into their cynicism. That would be for the Mayor to not just get notification passed — which is very important on its own — but also to put his lawyer and political skills to work making sure that the items that ultimately pass actually address the affordable housing crisis, instead of just meeting a political goal and pleasing developers who want to move in on central city single family neighborhoods.
In other words it would be great if the old peace making, compromise brokering Kirk Watson would emerge and put those skills to work.
As part of that, another positive element Watson could add would be to use his lawyer and policy-making skills to ask questions and challenge ideological assumptions — in an attempt to make sound, effective and humane policy. For instance many people, including myself, believe that if Pool’s three units per lot and shrinking lot size initiative passes, the homes of long time residents of East Austin — homes that have not yet been gentrified — will be the first affected by speculators seeking to build three or more units per current lot. Additionally, the most affordable areas remaining in other areas will likely fall victim to speculators. This seems like the most logical economic outcome, but maybe that is not correct. What would be great would be Watson putting his political and legal skills to work exploring that issue.
The cynical of course would say that musing about Watson doing that, or anything of the kind, is completely imaginary and just not going to happen.
If anybody has the skills to do all that, it’s Kirk Watson. So stay tuned.
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