Housing and Planning Committee grapples with how to prioritize code amendments

Thursday, May 25, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

Members of the City Council’s Housing and Planning Committee clashed during a briefing Tuesday over how best to approach moving forward on a set of amendments to the city’s Land Development Code.

The discussion took place at the committee’s special convened meeting on May 23, during which it received input from staff on a plan to prioritize the amendments. The group of city departments that produced the plan is known as the Land Development Code Cabinet and includes representatives from the Department of Development Services, Department of Housing, Department of Planning, Department of Transportation, Public Works, and Protection of Watersheds. The committee voted to request an information and prioritization plan in April.

A May 23 staff memo outlines the staff proposal, which divides the amendments into three categories: housing amendments, non-housing amendments, and programmatic direction and studies.

The housing category includes amendments previously initiated by the Council or the Planning Commission and are directly aimed at increasing the supply of housing. That category is further divided into items that would be simple to adopt and implement and items that would require more time and staff resources to prepare for adoption. Staff have said that staffing challenges are affecting their ability to keep up with the workload at City Hall.

“(We) have really tried to do a thorough analysis and (give them) a proposal so that we can move forward on much-needed code amendments at a time when we want to make sure that we’re balancing staff bandwidth, that we are acknowledging the limitations we have and making sure that process is more efficient,” said Deputy City Manager Veronica Briseño.

In the memo, staff recommends that the Council prioritize amendments that fall into the categories of housing and easy adoption and implementation. “As these amendments are successfully adopted, staffing resources may be shifted to more complex amendments with greater potential to increase housing capacity consistent with other Council goals and priorities,” the memo reads.

One of the amendments that staff would like to prioritize is the creation of a simplified redraft process that will facilitate in-fill residential units. Infill units refer to new units created within existing subdivisions. Brent Lloyd of the Department of Developmental Services said the amendment would use a provision of state law. “Given the time and costs associated with subdivision, this amendment could make creating residential lots much easier,” Lloyd said.

The main challenge with change is identifying areas to enable the process. Because the change limits the city’s ability to review and enforce a large number of regulations, staff will focus on areas where infrastructure and other factors can best accommodate additional lots without subdivision review.

Another amendment to the staff priority list is the part of the code that deals with deficient batches. The Council’s previous amendments made it more difficult to develop lots that do not meet current minimum standards for area or dimensions. “So we are going to consider changing the criteria to allow those lots to be developed independently,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd told the committee that staff will also prioritize housing amendments that are in the more complex B level, but the work will take more time and review. One such item is the “site plan lite,” which Lloyd says originated from the city’s Affordability Unlocked program. The first component of the light site plan amendment, which Lloyd said is “easy” to implement, allows up to four units to be built using the standard building plan review process that applies to a single-family home.

That language could be on the Council’s agenda as soon as July 20. However, the second component of the lightweight site plan process is more complicated, Lloyd said. The second part of the amendment requires a modified site plan process for a “missing intermediate” dwelling, which includes between five and 16 units.

“It’s about creating a bespoke set of regulations that doesn’t currently exist,” Lloyd said. “Right now we have a system that is based on a building permit for single-family homes or one- and two-family residential, full-size plan at the other end of the continuum, and then there are site plan waivers that are a little closer to the side of the construction plane. But what we’re looking at here is really creating a new level of regulations that accommodates the greater impacts of lack of media, but doesn’t require the full level of water quality and drainage that is required for the site plan.”

He continued: “And that is challenging and it will have organizational impacts.”

Councilmember Natasha Harper-Madison urged swift action and made a motion to recommend that the list and framework be considered by the full Council for approval. Councilman Ryan Alter proposed that the committee have a more in-depth discussion on whether the amendments are currently prioritized in the correct order.

Harper-Madison disagreed. “Unfortunately, I think that historically we thought as a body what we’re supposed to do to make decisions, to lead staff, is just walk resolutions out the door one by one,” she said. “I would really like for us as a body to be able to set a cadence. How do we take ideas from staff? You are actively doing the job we told you to do. We need to be listening to everyone.”

Alter said in response that it is the Council’s job to lead the staff, and that he thinks that staff are sometimes reluctant to prioritize the resolutions of different Council members. “And if we can give that guidance to say, look, this is where we are as a Council in terms of prioritization, that’s important,” he said.

Committee members worked on the podium on a separate version of the graphic created by Alter’s office. He moved to adopt the amended prioritization chart and forward it to the full Council for consideration. Harper-Madison expressed concern that the committee had not adequately investigated the changes or their potential impacts on the overall prioritization plan. “My preference would be to defer to staff each time,” she said. She requested that the committee approve Alter’s motion so that the prioritization chart could advance to the June 8 Council meeting, but with the understanding that the chart would return to committee for another review. The motion passed.

Image by Ag Ku from Pixabay.

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