Monday, August 12, 2002 by

Some commercial, plus single and multi-family housing planned

The Zoning and Platting Commission (ZAP) last week endorsed a proposal to develop single and multi-family housing on the Montopolis neighborhood site known as the Austin Jockey Club tract. The owners of the acreage near Bastrop Highway and East Riverside Drive sought a zoning change that would allow them to build a mix of small urban infill homes, apartments and commercial development.

The zoning change request had been postponed from the previous week so city staff could determine whether it fell more under the purview of the ZAP, or if the Planning Commission should hear it since the land is in an area covered by the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan. While the ZAP ended up hearing the case and making its recommendation, the proposal could still be sent to the Planning Commission for additional review before going on to the City Council.

In contrast to the original plans for a horse-racing track—which generated vigorous local opposition—both neighbors and PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources) supported the requested zoning changes. The applicants, T.C. and Robert Steiner, had requested a zoning of MF-3-NP on two tracts and CS-NP on a third. Staff submitted an alternate recommendation of SF-6-CO-NP for tract one and a combination of MF-3-CO-NP and GO-CO-NP for tract two, which is in the center of the site. That recommendation, said Annick Beaudet with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, was partly based on the future land-use map in the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan. Other factors included a housing-affordability study done last year when the city was considering purchasing the tract and the Airport Overlay designed to limit residential uses in areas subjected to noise from planes traveling to and from ABIA. The path of electrical easements on the property and an underground pipeline also played a role in shaping the staff recommendation. “Keeping density low there by the pipeline is good planning, and we stick by it,” Beaudet said.

“I have a hard time with that GO just stuck out in the middle of the property,” said Commissioner Keith Jackson. John Joseph, Jr., representing the applicant, told commissioners the site would be more suitable for residential development. “The situation has changed since that first designation in the land-use planning process,” he said. One change was an adjustment of the Airport Overlay’s boundaries. “The most important issue that has changed is the city is not purchasing this property,” Joseph said.

A proposed conditional overlay for the two MF-3 tracts would limit the amount developed as multi-family. Joseph told commissioners that developing multi-family was not the preferred option, but might be an economic necessity. “We’re working closely with the developer to try to do 50 percent as single-family detached and 50 percent as single-family attached,” he said. “However, because of the market, the flexibility (for multi-family) is necessary to justify the project. The feasibility study done by the City of Austin specifically says that a multi-family component is necessary.” The CO would cap the number of multi-family units at 720 to be spread over no more than 30 percent of the two tracts, which cover a total of 65 acres.

Commissioners added several other conditions to the zoning change, including capping the total number of residential units in the entire development at 1200 and limiting the number of trips per day. The final vote was 7-0 in favor.

Ramp builder he can't use it

Board says no to variance for illegal structure

The Environmental Board last week voted unanimously to deny a variance allowing an existing boat ramp on Lake Austin to remain in use, despite consultant Sarah Crocker’s multiple arguments for its approval.

While Crocker’s proposed findings of fact had apparently met all of the required conditions, the city staff’s produced findings of fact that shot them all down. Crocker argued that boat ramps are just as necessary as the swimming pools, patios, sidewalks and boat docks homeowners along Lake Austin build every year without required variances. Board members however, determined instead that the requested variance would have trampled on the City Code.

John McDonald, with Watershed Protection Development and Review (WPDR), told the board the city doesn’t allow boat ramps to be built at single-family residences along Lake Austin. The policy has been that parks are the only appropriate place for such ramps, he said.

In an ongoing legal battle with the city, the boat ramp at the McCarthy residence, 12021 Selma Hughes Park Rd., holds center stage. The ramp was built in spite of a Land Development Code rule that city staff says prohibits such construction.

According to Marisol Claudio-Ehalt, who heads up code enforcement in WPDR, the original site plan—which included the ramp—was denied, and the project was red-tagged back in April 1999. In July of that year, inspectors found the boat ramp already completed. A site plan was approved the following April to build a boat dock on top of the illegal ramp, thus rendering it useless as a ramp and bringing the property back into compliance with code. In August of 2001, the site was red-tagged with another stop-work order for a violation of shoreline modification. Complaints about the ramp followed in December of that year, she said.

McDonald said the city wants the boat ramp to be blocked, impeding access to the water. The ramp had previously been blocked with metal I-beams to come into compliance, but someone later removed them.

Crocker argued that if pools, patios, decks and boat docks are legal to build, then boat ramps should be as well. “To me a boat ramp into the water is more necessary than a swimming pool, and I’ve gotten a lot of variances for those.” She said she’d rather see ramps instead of more boat docks, noting that people who perform boat maintenance on docks that sit above the water risk polluting the lake from procedures such as oil changes, when they could move the boat completely away from the water if more ramps were available.

Ramps become critical whenever a boat is disabled. In that situation, Crocker said, a boat must be towed to a public boat ramp to be removed from the water. In that way, she said, boat ramps had less negative environmental impact than other residential improvements such as boat docks, pools or patios.

Vice Chair Tim Jones wondered what the potential impact would be if the Board were to recommend approval of this variance and it were granted. Residents along Lake Austin might interpret it as a green light to build their own boat ramps. He also pointed out how the 1050-square foot concrete boat ramp could be a perfect conveyance for lawn fertilizers to flow into the lake during a rainstorm.

Because the homeowner built the boat ramp without approval, against code, Jones said, approval of the variance would in effect be sanctioning illegal behavior.

Board Member Ramon Alvarez agreed. “I’m really troubled by this case,” he said. What are the penalties, he asked, for “this kind of shoot first, ask for permission later” behavior?

Claudio-Ehalt said the city could fine the owner up to $2,000 a day for every day the site remains out of compliance. Alvarez asked if the owner would escape any kind of penalty if he brings the site into compliance—if indeed he would pay no fine at all for blatantly going against code.

“Is the city seeking penalties?” he asked.

“I can’t answer that,” Claudio-Ehalt said. “Our ultimate goal is compliance,” she noted, saying she didn’t know why the city’s prosecutor agreed with the judge in ruling against punitive measures. The next court date is November 8.

Alvarez said he didn’t think it was right that the only penalty for such a blatant violation is hiring a consultant to get the permit after the fact: “a post-hoc permit approval.”

“I just think the city should take a more aggressive approach on this. That’s a very bad signal to send to the public,” he said.

Secretary Karin Ascot held up a photograph of the home on the 10.35-acre site, saying the owner had hired experts and spent a lot of money to design and build the house, the two boat docks and other amenities on the property, so he had to have known that building the boat ramp was a violation. He knew better, she said, but he tried to get away with it anyway.

Chair Lee Leffingwell said, “The pattern of abuse has been frequent and blatant.”

Board Member Connie Seibert made motion against the variance. The vote was 8-0 with Board Member Matt Watson absent.

Slow week ahead . . . After the frenzy accompanying the final passage of the Stratus agreement on Aug. 1, the City Council coasted through last week’s meeting with little but a consent agenda. This week there is no Council meeting and the Zoning and Platting Commission is also taking the week off. The Historic Landmark Commission is having a work session tonight, but the week looks pretty uneventful—at least on the surface . . . Bentzin’s recommendations on corporate crimes . . . Former Dell executive and Senate District 14 candidate Ben Bentzin has some proposals to head off future accounting scandals. He says the State Securities Board should add some teeth to its requirements for companies that receive state investment funds. To start, he says, those companies should report any waivers for conflicts of interest; require independent auditors to report significant disagreements with management to the company’s audit committee; require the audit committee to hire a law firm separate from the company’s usual outside counsel; and require quarterly reports to the board and shareholders on the work of the audit committee and its recommendations . . . Police monitor open house . . . There will be an official ribbon-cutting for the Office of the Police Monitor beginning at 1pm Tuesday. The Mayor, City Council, Police Chief Stan Knee and Senator Gonzalo Barrientos will be in attendance. The public is welcome to tour the office from noon to 3 pm. During that time, Police Monitor Iris Jones and her staff will be available to answer any questions. The office is at 1106 Clayton Lane, Suite 100E . . . Benefit for injured officer . . . Amigos in Azul Police Officers Association hopes to raise funds to assist one of their own, Officer Mike Guerra, who was injured on the job. A barbeque lunch/fundraiser is scheduled from 11am to 3pm on August 22 at Fiesta Gardens. Guerra was struck by a car while crossing an intersection to stop a speeding driver. He was in a coma for eight days and now requires extensive therapy to recover significant memory loss. To contribute directly, send a check to Amigos en Azul, c/o Officer Mike Guerra, AMFCU, PO Box 1089, Austin, Texas 78767. For more information, contact Ernest Pedraza, 736-2848.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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