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Board of Adjustment denies height

Wednesday, June 13, 2001 by

Variance for Treehouse condos

South Austin neighbors say project has not changed

Developers of a new condominium project at Barton Springs Road and Dawson failed this week to convince the Board of Adjustment to grant a variance allowing their project to be 20 feet higher than the current maximum allowable height of 60 feet. The vote was 3-2 in favor of granting the variance, but under the board’s rules at least 4 of the 5 members must vote in favor of any variance for it to pass.

This was the second time the variance was denied. Attorney Henry Gilmore, representing Steffen Waltz, had gone before the board in May seeking the same variance for the site of The Treehouse, a now-defunct bar just a few blocks from Town Lake (see In Fact Daily, May 15, 2001). At that time, the vote was 4-1 against. Under the board’s rules, property owners who are denied a variance may ask for second hearing if new information is presented. In this case, that new information pertained to the impact the design and location of the proposed building would have on local traffic flow.

“At the board’s last meeting, we failed to mention a very significant factor in the case,” said Gilmore. “Frankly, we thought we had given the board more than enough reason to grant the variance the first time—from the perspective of open space, less impervious cover, and greater tree savings . . . but obviously we were wrong.”

Gilmore repeated the property owner’s original argument that the shape of the lot provided a hardship and the amount of property taken up by easements—more than 25 percent of the total area—limited the space available for development. He told the board that by allowing the condo project to extend to 80 feet in height, the building could be moved back on the lot and away from Dawson Road. That would allow a larger driveway with more queuing area, meaning that vehicles entering the property would be less likely to block traffic on Dawson. Gilmore also said that the proposed location of the building with the height variance would allow improved sight distance for drivers on Dawson and would allow a safer pedestrian access route linking Town Lake and Bouldin Creek parks.

But members of several south Austin neighborhood groups objected to the proposed variance on the grounds that an 80-foot building at that location would be too tall. Gail Armstrong with the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association reminded board members they had previously rejected the variance. “Nothing is any different in this case today than it was last month,” Armstrong said. “What we have is another attempt to salvage an unsupportable request to break the 60-foot height limit on this property. The developers knew when they bought this property what the height limits were.”

Clarke Hammond of the South River City Citizens agreed, arguing that the traffic-safety issues were not sufficient reason to approve the variance. “The project will have to have a site plan approved by the city transportation staff,” Hammond said. “The Board of Adjustment should not be asked to grant this variance on the assumption that staff would approve an unsafe site plan.”

The board was divided over how to proceed. “I can’t go another 20 feet. That’s too high,” said Board Member Betty Edgemond. She moved to deny the variance and was joined by Board Member Barbara Aybar, but the motion failed on a vote of 2-3.

Board Member Frank Fuentes then moved an approval of the variance. “The findings of fact are what drive our decisions,” Fuentes said. “The client has given us good findings of fact with respect to safety and topography.” Board Chair Herman Thun agreed. “I too, respect the point of view of the neighborhood,” Thun said. “But I agree that the variance findings are well-developed and hard to refute.” They were joined by Board Member Leanne Heldenfels, while Edgemond and Aybar voted against the variance. Although the vote was 3-2 in favor, that was not a sufficient margin of approval. Board of Adjustment rules require a 4-1 majority. The Board is unique among the city boards and commissions in that its decisions are not appealed to the City Council, but to state district court (see In Fact Daily, May 29, 2001). The developer still has the option to build the condominiums with a maximum height of 60 feet and indicated during the board meeting that the change in height would not have allowed additional units or increased the total square footage of the project.

Aquifer district to start process

For habitat conservation plan

BSEACD to call for meeting to move plan forward

A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Edwards Aquifer area, somewhat akin to the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, appears to be taking form with the help of a local water district. Last week, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to hold a meeting for the purpose of pulling together various entities to discuss forming an HCP.

Board President Craig Smith said he has attended a couple of meetings on the subject so far this year, and he broached the issue to the Board to determine what kind of role the District might take in helping to establish an HCP. “The idea is to develop a plan that would safeguard the continued existence of the salamanders,” he said, noting he also wanted to discuss possible inclusion of other endangered species.

Though nothing firm was set at the previous meetings, “these discussions have been fruitful,” Smith said. “I have no illusion that this is something we could do or should do alone—we should definitely seek partners,” he added.

There was Board consensus on the need to take action towards implementation of an HCP, but sharp disagreement on exactly what role the District should play.

According to a report published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), “HCPs have been called the Quiet Revolution in conservation. Without much fanfare, they are changing the way Americans conserve wildlife and natural areas. HCPs are conservation plans that are drawn up by people at the local level, working with . . . the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service . . .” Congress created HCPs in 1982, but they were little used and nearly forgotten until 1992 when they were “rediscovered and overhauled,” and have since become “an important tool in the nation’s effort to conserve its wild heritage.”

Matthew Lechner, an aquatic biologist with the USFWS, attended the District’s board meeting last Friday to brief the Board on HCPs.

Director Jim Camp asked Lechner if having an HCP in place would simplify the process for landowners having to deal with various agencies and entities.

Lechner told him it would be a step in that direction. “We could all come together and have one-stop shopping,” he said, noting that an HCP might not be able to handle every issue, but it would certainly be a big step forward in dealing with water quality issues.

“Everybody is talking and nobody is denying the need for regional planning,” Lechner said. “I think it would be a good thing for the District to take a lead,” he added.

Board finally agrees

The Board agreed it was time to take some kind of action, but Director Bill Welch said spearheading a move to implement the program was outside of the District’s purview. “We should not be the lead,” he said. “We should be a participant, for sure, but not the lead.”

Welch said the District ought to remain focused on dealing with water quality and quantity, not an ancillary issue. “We should be focused on our two primary objectives,” he said, noting that as it is now, the District was not keeping up with its duties as well as he would like. The District’s job is to provide scientific data, not to establish an HCP, he said.

Director Don Turner agreed. “We’re trying to stretch ourselves way out of the bounds here,” he said, expressing concern about spreading the District’s resources too thin.

Smith disagreed. “The aquifer is our charge . . . so I think it’s appropriate for us to step up to the plate,” he said. “Everybody is waiting for someone else to go first, and nobody is going first.”

Welch said, “I think we should join the crowd and wait for somebody else to take the lead.”

Director Jack Goodman said, “Somebody should take the lead!” An HCP for the aquifer fits perfectly into the area of work the District is concerned with, he said—perhaps not with endangered birds but most definitely with the endangered salamanders.

“If we don’t take the lead on it, in some form, I don’t know who will,” he said. “What we’re talking about is getting folks together to start the process,” he added.

Turner said it would be too much for the District to take the lead, but he made a motion for the District to participate in the process in some fashion. Welch seconded his motion and the Board eventually agreed to allow Smith to send out a letter—on District letterhead—to the various entities concerned calling for a third meeting.

Camp said he saw the District’s role as facilitating the discussion but not being a lead player. Other entities involved might include Hays and Travis Counties, the City of Austin, other communities situated over the Edwards Aquifer, local environmental groups and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

Clover Clamons, a planner with the District, told In Fact Daily that District staff had been working in earnest on the HCP issue for a month and a half, after having talked about it for a year and a half. She said staff was interested in helping to find a way to protect habitat and endangered species in the aquifer area.

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

Mayor Kirk Watson plans to represent Austin when EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman visits Dallas on Thursday to discuss clean air and alternative plans for cities to reduce pollution. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will be in charge of the Council meeting until Watson returns, possibly at 5 p.m. . . . Chamber trip to D.C. . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Pflugerville Chamber of Commerce, will join elected officials, business and community leaders from the Austin metropolitan area on a trip to Washington, D.C., beginning Monday. Barbara Smith, a spokesperson for the Austin Chamber, said delegation members would be focusing on bringing more federal funds for transportation projects to the Central Texas area, as they speak with elected officials. In addition, she said, Austin officials will be meeting with representatives of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, Council Member Daryl Slusher, Travis County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Todd Baxter and Williamson County Commissioner Mike Heligenstein are among those planning to make the trip . . . Planning Commission . . . The Commission did not meet Tuesday . . . Pinnacle Award . . . The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau has received the 2001 Pinnacle Award for “an outstanding job on meeting the needs of meeting planners” . . . MBE/WBE Notes . . . Members of the MBE/WBE Council Subcommittee plan to meet with representatives of the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee and area contractors over the next 90 days to discuss the results of the recent MBE/WBE availability study. That study reviewed the relative availability of minority and women-owned businesses within the city’s geographic marketplace. At its Thursday meeting, the City Council is expected to approve minor revisions to the city’s MBE/WBE ordinance and to extend the “sunset” date of the ordinance by one year. The ordinance is currently scheduled to expire at the end of June. The proposed revisions include adding new language regarding a “good faith” effort to comply with the ordinance and changing the MBE/WBE certification period from one year to three years.

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