In addressing Austin’s land code, District 6 City Council candidates offer mixed bag

Austin City Council District 6 covers the northwest portion of the city and extends into Williamson County to the north. (Courtesy City of Austin)
Austin City Council District 6 covers the northwest portion of the city and extends into Williamson County to the north. (Courtesy City of Austin)

Austin City Council District 6 covers the northwest portion of the city and extends into Williamson County to the north. (Courtesy City of Austin)

Austin sits a standstill in trying to overhaul the rules that govern land development, rules which most in the community agree are outdated and confusing. The project to update the regulations has stretched since 2012, and the latest push was halted on the home stretch by a local judge who said the city failed to acknowledge the official protests of residents against the proposal. The city is trying to appeal the decision.

Since its commencement, the effort to update the city’s land development code has polarized the city and drawn stark political lines between those who believe granting the ability to build dense housing throughout the city will bring housing costs down and those who believe preserving existing old homes, which they say make up the character of a neighborhood, is the best path toward affordability.

Those divisions revealed themselves as candidates running for Austin City Council’s District 6 addressed the issue of the land development code during the Sept. 30 League of Women Voters panel. The Northwest Austin district, which crosses county lines into Williamson County, has drawn three challengers to face incumbent Jimmy Flannigan for the four-year term: Dee Harrison, a retired state emergency management professional; Mackenzie Kelly, a client care manager for seniors; and Dr. Jennifer Mushtaler, a physician and founder of Capital Ob/Gyn Associates of Texas.

Each of the candidates agreed the city needs a new land development code; however, they offered varying visions of how to get there and what it should accomplish.

During his time on City Council, Flannigan positioned himself as part of the pro-density section of City Council members. During the latest push, which was stalled earlier this year, Flannigan consistently voted with the seven-vote majority of City Council trying to push the code through to adoption.

Flannigan criticized Judge Jan Soifer’s ruling as “upending decades of standard practice” that has led to various positive land development code changes, from "McMansion" restrictions to parkland dedication rules. He said the city needs the appellate court to clarify the judge’s ruling, or the state Legislature needs to step in. However, Flannigan said it is crucial for the city to address its housing availability issues, but that it has to be done correctly.

“Ultimately, what we have to do is solve the problem of supply and demand,” Flannigan said. “We need to build housing for all Austinites at all income levels, both for our essential workers that are being gentrified out of the city and for the next generation of Austinites that want to be able to afford to live in this community.”

Although Harrison agreed that the land development code presented an obstacle toward progress, she disagreed with the city’s effort to spend money appealing the judge’s decision. She said the city needs to “take the throat punch we got from the judge and move forward.”

“We have to get rid of the current code because it is just an absolute mess,” Harrison said. “It is adversely affecting the way we can move forward for the city. It's adversely affecting our housing, our development, our business opportunities. We've got to fix it, but we can't do it in such a way that we violate the rights of our homeowners and our residents and our businesses.”

Kelly echoed sentiments that the land development needed to see an update, but she said it was important to respect the city’s single-family homeowners and neighborhoods and work to not drive them out.

“Single-family home ownership is important because, for working people, land and property ownership is typically the only path to generational wealth,” Kelly said. “We have to protect the property rights of homeowners.”

Kelly said if the city had “done things right the first time,” it would not be entrenched in the current legal battle.

Mushtaler supports a land code update but sharply criticized Flannigan for spending money to fight a lawsuit supported by some Austin residents. She claimed Flannigan, in his initial City Council bid in 2016, vowed to end wasteful spending on lawsuits. The process to rewrite the code has stretched eight years with heavy community engagement processes, but Mushtaler echoed a criticism from some residents that the now-stalled land code rewrite did not involve neighborhoods or residents.

“There are good opportunities to create transit-oriented corridors and to bring in good workforce housing and transportation that marries the needs of affordability and inventory,” Mushtaler said. “But this is not the way to do it. I'm really appealing to the current council, please stop suing us.”

Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting begins Oct 13 and runs through Oct. 30.