AUSTIN — Travis County Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled Monday the Austin City Council must put a petition ordinance related to CodeNEXT, the city's rewrite of the land development code, on the November ballot.
In March, activists turned in a petition with more than 31,000 signatures from Austin residents supporting an ordinance that would require voter approval before CodeNEXT, or any future re-write of the land development code, goes into effect.
If the ordinance were to pass, voters would only vote to implement CodeNEXT after it was approved by the city council.
The Austin City Council could have voted to adopt the language or put it on the November ballot to let voters decide. The council did neither. Mayor Steve Adler and several members said because state law prohibits allowing residents to vote on zoning issues, with the exception of voting to implement zoning, they were concerned the petition ordinance wasn't legal.
A group of activists sued the council, leading to Monday's ruling.
Judge Naranjo provided some explanation for her decision, writing:
"At this point, CodeNEXT is not an ordinance; it is a draft of a proposed ordinance. Neither the parties nor the Court know the exact substance of the final version of CodeNEXT. It is subject to revisions, or it may never be passed by the City Council. Nevertheless, Respondents ask the Court to find that CodeNEXT is a zoning ordinance or that zoning is not severable from the remainder of CodeNEXT...The facts underlying Respondents' challenges are contingent and hypothetical, including whether CodeNEXT is ever passed or were proposed by initiative in its final concrete form."
Attorney Fred Lewis, who represented the activists who filed the lawsuit, told KVUE News he is thankful the court gave them an expedited hearing. He also said he is "very gratified citizens will get an opportunity to decide if they want to vote on CodeNEXT."
The City of Austin released the following statement:
“We acknowledge the Judge’s ruling requiring the city to place the ordinance on the ballot. While we respect the Judge’s decision, it leaves unresolved questions about whether zoning is an appropriate subject for election.”
Council Member Leslie Pool also commented:
"I’m very pleased with the Court’s ruling today regarding the CodeNext petition. It is my hope that the City Council honors the decision and does not appeal the ruling. Our next Council meeting is August 9, and it is my hope the Council votes unanimously to give voters a say on any large-scale changes to the City’s Land Development Code.
When the City Clerk certified the petition signed by more than 31,000 Austin voters, the Council had a duty to place the item on the ballot. Three of my colleagues agreed with me – Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Ora Houston and Alison Alter. The Council majority instead voted on a substitute resolution that, if not for today’s ruling, would have denied voters that right based on a state law that prohibits referendum votes on zoning matters.
But as the judge explained in a letter included with her order, '…CodeNext is not an ordinance; it is draft of a proposed ordinance. Neither the parties nor the Court know the exact substance of the final version of CodeNext.'
The judge’s order directs the city 'to timely take all steps to place the proposed initiative on the ballot for the November 6, 2018 election.'"
The election will be held on Nov. 6, 2018.