Although I've been paying a lot of attention to the Red Bird Lane case lately, there is nothing unusual about it. Austin homeowners are always up in arms over proposed zoning changes. And who can blame them? Our land-use regulations have conditioned homeowners to expect "protection" from every piddling change in use.
Take our residential zoning. Ignoring the Lake Austin district, there is Rural Residence, SF-1, SF-2, SF-3, SF-4A, SF-4B, SF-5 and SF-6. If I counted right, that's eight. And then we have six different multi-family districts. Fourteen grades of residential districts. Oops. I forgot the mobile home district.
But fifteen districts apparently are not enough for us to make the really fine distinctions needed for a happy, harmonious city. No, we also have historic district overlays, waterfront overlays, mixed-use and VMU overlays (these aren't the same thing), NP combining districts, traditional neighborhood districts, neighborhood conservation combining districts, transit oriented development -- many of which we had to invent because we had squeezed too much flexibility out of the land-use code. Then there is the raft of special uses, including "urban homes," "cottages" and "secondary apartment special uses." The McMansion ordinance that applies to central Austin. And let's not forget all of the private and public covenants extracted over the years in exchange for rezonings, the equivalent of land mines abandoned in an old battlefield.
We make these fine distinctions, of course, so we can vary the permitted uses from block to block, sometimes from lot to lot. (Here's an example of gerrymandered commercial uses on South Lamar.) An SF-2 lot sits next to an SF-3 lot with a restrictive covenant. Both are in an NP-combining district that allows secondary apartment special uses but not urban homes or cottages. On the rear of the block are three different flavors of commercial mixed-use-NP and multi-family zoning, while one block over from that is a mixture of MF-2 and MF-3 and SF-5, and a block over from that a small infill "urban home" neighborhood. Four-plexes here, duplexes and single-family homes there. If you kick a can in this town, it will land in a different district. This is not "zoning"; it is gerrymandering.
We don't need to create a separate district for every flavor of housing. That has just gotten us a byzantine patchwork of stifling micro-regulation. I see no evidence that it has enhanced the quality of our housing stock or the appearance or livability of our neighborhoods. And this over-regulation ultimately is self-defeating. Regulations shape expectations. If every lot in a neighborhood can accommodate a single-family home and a duplex, then the average homeowner won't get mad when a neighbor starts building a duplex. But eliminate the duplex entitlement and that same homeowner will go ballistic if someone asks for it. Zoning entitlements have a strong endowment effect, which should be no surprise since they are in a sense a collective property right. We've created the expectation that we can and will recognize trivial distinctions between uses. It is no wonder that land-use issues are so contentious in this town.