Judge sends Austin’s land code rewrite back to square one. Austin City Council member: ‘This is the least of our worries right now.’

Austin City Council was poised to make a final vote on the land development code rewrite by early April. (CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER)
Austin City Council was poised to make a final vote on the land development code rewrite by early April. (CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER)

Austin City Council was poised to make a final vote on the land development code rewrite by early April. (CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER)

A local judge ruled against the city of Austin’s position that property owners do not have protest rights in a comprehensive revision of a city’s land development code in a March 18 decision, marking a significant setback in the city’s eight-year effort to overhaul its rules around what can be built in the city and where.

Judge Jan Soifer said the city violated state law by not notifying individual property owners of the Planning Commission’s public hearing regarding changes to their, or nearby properties’, zoning, and not acknowledging individual property owners’ right to protest changes to their, and nearby properties’, zoning.

However, the city council’s stated aspiration of passing a new land code in 2020 has already taken a substantial blow from the rapid spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, which has caused widespread health and economic harm in Austin and across the nation. Earlier this week, the city halted all work on the land code rewrite as it headed for a third and final vote on April 2.

Although previously a top priority for City Council, some council members said they had no time to think about the ramifications of the judge’s decision.

"Really, who gives a flying F right now?” said District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. Flannigan supported the city’s position that individual property owners did not have protest rights in a comprehensive revision of the land code, but said he was wholly focused on coronavirus response. “We already postponed third reading. This is the least of our worries right now.”


District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, another council member who supported the city’s position in the lawsuit, said he had not read the decision as of Wednesday night. Casar said he was only focused on mitigating the harm from the coronavirus.

“I will read the order when I have time, but I don’t plan on thinking about the land development code for at least another couple weeks,” Casar said.

District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, who has been vocal in her objection to the city’s position, said she had always supported property owners’ protest rights. Local attorney Fred Lewis, a plaintiff in the case, said he was “highly gratified” the judge ruled with the plaintiffs on all counts.

Mayor Steve Adler could not be reached for comment; however, he told Community Impact Newspaper last month that if the city lost the lawsuit, it would likely be impossible to complete a comprehensive rewrite of the land development code.

A city spokesperson said the city was “disappointed in the ruling” and it “will assess our options and will advise council accordingly,” but stopped short of saying whether the city would appeal. Read the decision below.

By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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