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Herman Thun: Chair,

Tuesday, May 29, 2001 by

Board of Adjustment

By David Ansel

Herman Thun, president of LZT Architects, Inc., serves the City of Austin as chairman of the Board of Adjustment. It is a unique nine-member board that is appointed by the City Council. It hears appeals from the decisions of the City Building Inspector in the enforcement of zoning provisions and holds public hearings on requests for exceptions to zoning provisions. The quasi-judicial nature of the board is what makes it unique, Thun explains. That is, since its rules of operation are established by the Legislature, appeals from board decisions are made in state court, not to the City Council.

The board handles variances and does not involve itself with planning issues or zoning changes. When enforcement of the provisions of a zoning ordinance will result in unnecessary hardship, a variance will be granted—so long as it is not contrary to the public interest. In describing the process, Thun said, “If you cannot meet the letter of the law, you may be able to get a variance. But there is a prescribed fact-finding. It’s not based on how a person or board member feels about the variance.” This burden of fact-finding is placed upon the applicant. “If facts can’t be found, we deny the variance.”

Findings have to do with reasonable use, hardship, and character. The board would employ ‘reasonable use’ to grant a setback variance to prevent a business from having to unload service vehicles on a public street. Another common ‘reasonable use’ argument is used by storage facilities that petition the board to grant a variance on the amount of parking spaces required. In their business, zoning requires a larger number of spaces than ‘reasonable use’ requires, so the board often finds in their favor. ‘Hardship’ cases occur when setbacks combine with easements or topography to render a property unusable. The board will often grant setback variances in these cases in order to help owners better utilize their property.

Neighborhood character is an important mitigating factor in these decisions. The variance findings largely take compatibility into account. The board aims to keep building setbacks, height restrictions, density, and parking consistent with the existing neighborhood standards. “Let’s say the builder of an orange house comes with a request for a variance of six inches,” says Thun. “Neighbors will come and object because they don’t want the orange house. The issue is the setback, not the orange house. We all have opinions and feelings and obviously there’s a tendency for them to surface. My responsibility is to keep the commission on track according to the finding of fact.”

Essentially the board’s findings are about people, and that’s what Thun enjoys. “The point is to provide equal opportunity and benefit to all citizens, both residents and businesspeople. As a commission, we try to deal with that—that no one is treated unfairly.” Describing how the board seeks to further level the playing field, he states, “Admittedly, we try to help mom and pop who don’t have means to hire an attorney. We try to help them through the process. My favorite part is listening to and working with the applicants. I enjoy meeting them and sharing their concerns. I enjoy when there is opposition and I can help parties find consensus.”

Thun is similarly excited about his work at LZT Architects. The firm designs institutional, industrial, commercial and multifamily projects. A current high-profile project in Austin is the Downtown Homeless Shelter, Resource Center and Health Clinic, which will stand behind the Salvation Army at the northeast corner of Neches and 7th St. Thun sounds like a proud father as he describes the building, the construction of which is being funded by HUD and the city. It is a ‘green’ building, complete with rainwater collection and a photovoltaic system. The concrete to be used in construction contains fly ash recycled from coal-powered generating plants. The carpets and paints are to be low in volatile organic compounds (VOC). And it’s designed to be more tolerant of temperature extremes by utilizing ceiling fans and opening windows.

Thun has been in Austin since 1982, having spent most of his life in Illinois. His favorite feature of the city is its diversity. “I enjoy having conversations and opposing opinions on architecture, politics, music, and literature. I like the fact that the city has an open door to diverse opinions, cultures, and attitudes. That’s the rich part of the city—all the different blends of yarn that weave a fabric called Austin. The biggest challenge is part of that diversity. The essence here is to challenge everything, both good and bad. It’s a source of frustration to see good things be swallowed up by opinion and comment, but of course it’s good to see some bad things be denied by the same forces.”

His favorite hobby is reading, mostly history and biography, on early weekend mornings. He’s been married almost fifty years to his wife Pat, and they have four children sprinkled throughout the country. He’s a proud grandfather, and notes humorously that the greatest advantage of grandchildren is that “they come with taillights.”

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Holiday week . . . The Planning Commission cancelled its regular meeting this week. The City Council will be off this week also, but the Historic Landmark Commission will meet tonight . . . Pace picks up in Hays County . . . The Planning and Zoning Commission of San Marcos will conduct a public hearing at 7 p.m. today in the Council Chambers at City Hall on the proposed five-year Capital Improvements Program. Following the hearing, the commission will vote on its recommendations to the City Council. The City of Buda will hold a Town Hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the town’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, a matter of dispute between Buda and the City of Austin. Hays County is also preparing for a bond election this Saturday to finance parkland acquisition and road construction.

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