City Council voted to move toward reducing the number of alerts the city must mail out to neighbors when nearby properties are moving through zoning or development updates. Separately, a measure from the city clerk to revise public testimony rules at City Council meetings remains under consideration and may be taken up in the near future.

What happened

Texas law requires local rezonings and relevant public hearings to be accompanied by public notification of area property owners about the potential changes. State statute only requires notices to be sent out to properties within 200 feet of the site under land-use review, but Austin's boundary is much broader with a 500-foot limit in place.

The city also typically runs newspaper notices and places informational signs at properties in question.
Notifications of a proposed zoning change must be sent out to all properties within 500 feet of the site in question. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Notifications of a proposed zoning change must be sent out to all properties within 500 feet of the site in question. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Following the June release of a special audit report about Austin's system and how it stacks up against peer cities, Council Member Ryan Alter drafted a resolution asking to both cut the city's notice radius in half down to 250 feet and establish a new electronic notification option. Council approved that item, co-sponsored by members Mackenzie Kelly, Chito Vela and José Velásquez, on July 20.

Alter previously told Community Impact he wanted the update to be accompanied by new opt-in, electronic notices so that anyone interested in Austin's zoning proceedings can stay looped in regardless of where they live—while also cutting down on the cost and staff time needed to handle mailed messaging.

Following the July vote, Alter said he hopes to improve an "inefficient and ineffective" process while maintaining what he called an essential public information service.

"This item recognized that there is a smarter, more effective, and more equitable way to notify people by utilizing technology," he said in a statement. "Instead of wasting resources on paper notifications few read, we are starting a process of more effectively notifying neighbors through electronic methods that are easier to understand within the bounds of state law. These improvements will improve transparency, increase sustainability and save taxpayer dollars."

Alter's resolution was approved with some dissent; Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter voted against.

“At a time when we’re making significant changes to housing policy that will impact residents across this city, the better policy is to enhance transparency—not hinder it," Watson said in a statement.

Pool agreed, saying that there's room for improvement without limiting the current system.

"I recognize that from time to time we need to look at our processes for efficiencies and effectiveness, but I’m not eager to reduce our notification distance particularly at a time when we are making significant adjustments to the land development code," she said. "Right now, we need to err on the side of doing more to let folks know whether they are affected by a change."

While noting she could eventually support cutting down Austin's notification rules, Alison Alter also said she worried about public confidence in council taking a hit with officials' vote coming alongside a sweeping housing policy action and consideration of additional public participation rules.

"I think this change sends the wrong signal to our constituents about our willingness as a body to hear from the public about the impact of the land-use decisions we are making on their behalf," she said July 20.

Ryan Alter's measure will ask city management to consider changes to "improve awareness through clear communication, improve equitable access to relevant information, and reduce cost through use of electronic methods wherever possible."

Any adjustments will return to council in the future before going into effect.

Also on the agenda

Another update to residents' dealings with City Hall could be on the way if proposed changes to council meeting policies for public comment are enacted.
City officials are looking to update council meeting procedures and Austin's zoning notification process. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
City officials are looking to update council meeting procedures and Austin's zoning notification process. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
Austin officials have contended with temporary tweaks to the public communication process since COVID-19 first sent city proceedings virtual, and various rule changes have been in place as meetings gradually returned to hybrid and fully in-person formats.

From City Council to citizen board and commission meetings, recent changes and the management of both remote and in-person speakers have come with some technical challenges and occasional confusion over the procedures in place. City Clerk Myrna Rios has also spoken about the difficulties she and her staff have faced in handling new registration and teleconferencing systems while working to keep meetings running smoothly.

Rios suggested policy changes ranging from minor language tweaks—replacing references to "citizens" communication with "public"—to material updates for resident involvement. Those include:
  • Removing the ability to donate allotted speaking time to other individuals
  • Striking a policy that council must pull items from its consent agenda if multiple people register to testify on that item. Generally, the consent agenda includes administrative and noncontroversial items officials can pass in a single vote without in-depth debate or amendments.
  • Moving up the deadline to register to testify on an agenda item. Currently, registration is allowed all the way through public comment until the final speaker on an item begins their testimony; the new proposal sets a deadline of noon on the Wednesday before a council meeting for online registration and 45 minutes before a meeting starts for in-person registration.
  • Moving the deadline to register for general public communications—a period reserved to comment on topics not linked to any agenda items—from one to two weeks before a council meeting
So far, those items have generally been rebuked by Austinites recently testifying about the proposals.

More than 100 people registered their opposition to the changes at the July 20 meeting, and several speakers have expressed their concerns about limiting government transparency and stifling public engagement.

In a July 12 memo, interim City Manager Jesús Garza asked city officials to delay a vote on the changes "to allow the opportunity for further review." Council postponed the item indefinitely July 20.