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Commission wants to tighten rules for garage apartments

Friday, October 15, 2004 by

Proposal would limit size, occupancy

The Planning Commission has endorsed a series of code amendments that would put new limits on the construction of secondary residences or apartments on single-family lots. The rules, if approved by the Council, would impose new requirements regarding maximum square footage, impervious cover, gross floor area, and occupancy limits.

The Planning Commission took up the proposed amendments at the request of the City Council after Council Members passed new rules to prevent the spread of "super-duplexes" in certain neighborhoods. In response to changes in the ordinances designed to stop the construction of extremely large homes for up to a dozen unrelated residents, builders searched for other ways to increase density in some central-city neighborhoods.

"After that amendment took place, there was a decision made by many property owners to start building larger 'super twos,'" said Greg Guernsey with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. Guernsey described a scenario in which the largest home possible — frequently up to twice the size of other homes in the neighborhood — would be built on a lot, followed by the construction of an over-sized garage apartment. "But there was no occupancy limit on that second unit, so what you had, in essence, was something similar to the super-duplex. You had the same issues of cars parking in the front yard, parking in the neighborhood, having this influx of buildings with a scale and massing that have not been experienced before in these neighborhoods," he said.

To deal with that issue, the new rules will cap the occupancy of a two-family use or secondary apartment use at four unrelated people in the main house and two unrelated people in the secondary structure. "I applaud the effort to finally get this done and taken care of," said Karen McGraw with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Planning Team. "The people building super-duplexes turned right around and started building 'super-twos.’ So we do need to end that situation. The occupancy limit is the key."

Other new rules would limit the height of a second apartment or home to 30 feet, and would also limit the impervious cover to 45 percent. Commissioners spent most of their time debating the size limits for a secondary apartment, or "garage apartment.” City staff’s recommendations called for a maximum size limit of 850 square feet. If the secondary apartment is built as a two-story structure, or added on top of an existing structure, staff recommended that the second story have a maximum floor area of 500 square feet. That would allow the construction of a one-room apartment over the standard two-car garage, along with an enclosed stairwell to access the unit.

Commissioner Matt Hollon moved to increase that second story limit to 550 square feet. "I'm very pro-secondary apartment. I would like to see more neighborhood plans adopt this infill ordinance," he said.

Commissioners had several questions for Stuart Hersh of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office about how the regulations would likely affect the cost and affordability of secondary apartments, which are only allowed as a special use in designated neighborhood planning areas. The original proposal to the Planning Commission's Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee called for a limit of 450 square feet, and some commissioners wanted the limit to be as high as 600 square feet, but Hollon's suggestion of 550 square feet was eventually accepted.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan moved approval of the recommended changes to the codes and ordinances, with a second from Commissioner Cid Galindo. That motion passed on a vote of 7-0. While the handful of central city neighborhood activists who attended the meeting praised the action, they also called for more to be done. "We'd really like you to think about adding single-family attached to this," said Colleen Daly with the North University Neighborhood Association. She predicted the push for density would inspire developers to seek out other ways to put more occupants on single-family lots. "We're going to come back next year and have 'super single-family attached,’" she said.

While reviewing the rules for single-family structures was not part of the Council’s request, Commissioner Dave Sullivan said that subject would likely come up at a future Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee meeting, along with other modifications to the rules for two-family and secondary apartment uses.

Indigent and uninsured make up 25 percent of population

Hospital managers face daunting task

Managers of the Travis County Hospital District got a sobering look Thursday night at what they are facing in providing indigent health care in the future, as two local providers outlined their operations and laid out an array of facts and figures illustrating the difficulty of their mission.

Regina Rogoff, director of the People’s Community Clinic, and Trish Young, CEO of Community Care Services for the City of Austin, told the district’s Board of Managers that both of their agencies are currently under-funded, and hard pressed to meet the needs of area’s indigent and uninsured population. That group is currently estimated to be 25 percent of Travis County’s residents.

“The entire safety net is full, and it is bursting at the seams,” Young said. “The system lacks the resources, the providers and the capacity to serve all those seeking our services.”

The district will operate the city and county clinic system, as well as Brackenridge Hospital, once the district is fully operational, and it has money in its budget to lend assistance to clinics like People’s, should it decide to do so.

The People’s Clinic operates as an independent facility, though it does have a referral agreement with St. David’s Hospital emergency room. The clinic serves about 11,000 patients a year, including pediatrics, obstetrics, and adult medicine.

Rogoff says the clinic – which started out in a church basement 40 years ago – serves many Medicaid patients, and charges others who qualify on a sliding scale basis. The clinic usually operates at a loss.

“Our average fee is $34, but the average payment is only $22, and we have a 62 percent collection rate,” Rogoff said. “These payments constitute only 10 percent of our general revenues.”

Young, whose domain includes the city and county’s federally qualified health centers (FQHC), said the current demand for services far outstrips the services they are able to provide.

“We have seen a significant increase in the past three years in the number of people qualified under our programs who are seeking access to the clinic system,” she said. “We are seeing an even greater increase in the number of people who are seeking to become qualified. We already have more people enrolled in the system than we have doctors and nurses to care for them.”

Young says phone lines are often jammed with people seeking an appointment with a doctor, adding that the wait is about three days and that the clinics are often booked up as early as 2pm.

One job of clinics such as People’s and the city/county system is to keep non-emergency patients out of area emergency rooms. But according to Young, that is increasingly difficult to do.

“To have your clinic operate efficiently, demand must equal your resources,” she said. “How do you make the demand equal the resources when the demand is rising steadily and the resources remain flat?”

“What do you do about people who need those resources?” she said. ”Even if you can get into our system, the question arises: can we take care of you?”

Both said there are a number of factors driving the demand, including rapid population growth in the area, a poor economy in which may people have lost jobs and health insurance, and a heavy influx of undocumented aliens. “The district will have it’s work cut out for it, with one person in four being uninsured,” she said. “That’s an astonishing number of people. And everything we see tells us that number is only going o grow.”

Battle over smoking ordinance heats up

Yesterday's story about the anti-smoking political action committee, Austin Supports Health (ASH), started by veteran political consultant Alfred Stanley sparked quite and exchange between Stanley and bar owner Paul Silver. (See In Fact Daily, October 14, 2004.) In an email to Stanley, Silver, who owns 219 West, expressed his willingness to do battle in the City Council race arena.

“I will do what I can to persuade the business community to support candidates who support freedom of choice and reasonable accommodation,” Silver wrote. “And I will not personally help contribute funds to a candidate who takes money from ASH PAC. You will unnecessarily create pressure, division, [and] conflict in a Council race that has many other important issues facing Austin like security, transportation, and economic growth.”

During last year's elections, Silver was one of the leaders of a group of Warehouse District club owners who sponsored a forum to find out where candidates stood on a newly passed city smoking regulation.

Silver’s email was also addressed to Rodney Ahart, who will control collection of donations and decide on expenditures for the small donor PAC. Ahart, the lobbyist for the American Cancer Society in Austin, worked to get a tough smoking ordinance passed under Mayor Gus Garcia and was disappointed—as was Stanley—when the Council make-up changed and the ordinance was weakened.

In his email, Silver expressed disappointment about ASH’s creation. "Every person in the bar is there at their own choice and consent,” he wrote. “To the extent that nonsmokers demonstrate that they are a lucrative clientele, businesses will serve them by restricting smoking. Why is it the most bars prefer to allow smoking? It is unkind, unfair, and unnecessary for the majority of citizens to persecute a minority merely because of a personal preference.”

Stanley’s response included the information that he is an ex-smoker who began smoking at the age of 13, likely because his family smoked. “My father died of a heart condition. My mother died of cancer. My aunt died of emphysema,” he said. “Second-hand smoke is dangerous. It affects not only patrons, arguably there of their own free will, but also workers. The young people who work as wait staff and bartenders may not fully understand the risks they are exposing themselves to.”

Silver did not return a call for comment, but wrote to Stanley that he was “taking the matter personally” because he knows both Stanley and Ahart. “I own a Nightclub and you are specifically trying to take away freedom to exercise informed consent from me and my guests. I see your efforts as an unwillingness to reach out for a reasonable compromise.”

Hats off to voter registrars . . . As of Thursday morning, Travis County had 584,250 registered voters—nearly 12,000 more than were registered before the 2000 presidential election. Voter Registration Director Dolores Lopez said workers in her office were still adding names to the list because applications were still arriving in the mail. One reason for that, she said, is that some Austinites registered in counties other than Travis, so those counties had to sort through a lot of applications and send them to the appropriate county . . . But the big news is really in Williamson County. Elections Administrator John Willingham said yesterday that his county has 43,000 more registered voters than it did four years ago, for a total of 199,850. Like Lopez, Willingham is still counting new voters. Willingham said 7,327 of his county’s registered voters are City of Austin residents . . . Early voting begins Monday . . . Gentlemen, ladies, start your engines. Let’s see what your get-out-the-vote machines can do. Early voting will run for 12 straight days — through October 29 — leaving those in charge of the efforts just three days to get ready for the big finale on November 2 . . . We’d like to hear from our readers . . . If you think some race in the Austin area has been ignored, please let us know. We will do our best to get more information on it . . . The other race . . . Capital Metro is, of course, asking voters to approve its commuter rail plan. Amanda Lawson, the new director of communications for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, put out the word that the chamber will host a Small Business Issues Forum, "Roads, Rails and Votes," on October 27 at 4:30pm at the Radisson Hotel & Suites, 111 East Cesar Chavez. It’s a chance for members—who will get in free—to ask questions about the rail proposal as well as about toll roads. The Chamber is supporting both as ways to “reduce time in traffic and increase mobility in the Greater Austin Region.“ Those who want to attend are encouraged to register now online at or by calling 322-5624.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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