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Single-family ordinance not quite finished

Friday, June 16, 2006 by

RECA, others call for commission to rule on McMansion cases

The Real Estate Council of Austin’s ordinance review panel has passed a resolution seeking to reinstate a portion of the single-family design rules left out of the ordinance approved unanimously by the City Council last week. The resolution encourages the Council to create a residential design commission to hear cases in which the design does not meet the letter of the guidelines. The group did not take a position on the ordinance itself.

The Council deleted that section of the ordinance after hearing from a number of developers, mostly those who build duplexes, who opposed creation of the commission.

Now, some of those folks have changed their minds.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said he has heard from a number of builder representatives indicating that they would like the commission reinstated. Without such a commission, those seeking a variance or waiver would have to go through the Board of Adjustment.

Task Force Co-chair Laura Morrison, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said, "The Board of Adjustment is a semi-judicial entity. They have very strict criteria (for granting a variance)." The variance is based on a hardship, she noted, and that can't be "that you just have to comply with the code. Sometimes it’s possible to have compatible structures" that are not the same as the surrounding houses. In addition, she said the committee would allow for an appeal to the City Council. That option is not available to those who lose a battle at the BOA, which means a trip to the courthouse as the only option.

Builder Michael Casias, a former member of the Planning Commission and a member of the task force which labored over the regulations for months, asked the Council last week to delete the section relating to the new commission. He said at the time that such a commission would likely result in "another costly and time-consuming obstacle for applicants, not a predictable and administrative 25 percent increase for those projects that meet the intent of the ordinance."

Casias said Thursday that he still opposes some of the elements of the proposed commission. Instead of what was in the final draft of the ordinance, Casias said, the city should have "a non-political commission of design professionals …that did not look at a lot of the same issues as Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustment." It was not clear how a non-political body could be created and Casias is not naïve enough to think any such group could be entirely non-political. However, he said he would like to see an ordinance that focuses "on mass and scale vs. privacy in rear yards and neighborhood design standards."

But that kind of change seems unlikely to happen because changing the parameters of what the commission could consider would undo the careful balance between builder and neighborhood interests the task force worked so hard to develop.

Duplexes most affected by ordinance The Council drew a careful net around oversized duplexes on single-family lots at last week’s meeting, trying to find just the right balance between investors with the right to build on high-priced lots and neighborhood groups who consider character a prime part of the value of the properties in their neighborhoods.

This is not the easiest balance in a city known to tout its commitment to density. As members of Planning Commission have pointed out in recent meetings, maybe the question is not just density but whether density should be concentrated in the city. Ironically, the McMansions ordinance will apply to area in the city’s core, just the same area where City Council has traditionally encouraged density.

Density is not the problem, McCracken said; duplexes are. McCracken said there was a clear tension between developers who wanted a good return on a property and neighborhoods that had to tolerate those properties. Austin is one of the few cities that puts duplex into the single-family zoning category. The vast majority of McMansion problems go back to the issue of duplexes, McCracken said.

"That does not mean that duplexes are bad or good. In many cases, they’re excellent," McCracken said. "We have some great duplex builders in the room tonight, but it does not change the fact that I think what the task force found – and what you heard – is that the overwhelming majority of speakers tonight from the majority side were duplex builders. So I think we’re getting to our wit’s end on how to handle this."

Rather than prohibiting duplexes, Austin has chosen to regulate them, based on compatibility, McCracken said. He called it a better solution to the problem.

According to the guidelines City Council passed on first and second reading, the limits on development will be a combination of factors: setbacks; height limits; articulation; and floor-to-area ratios. Morrison described the formula as dropping a "tent" on a property, where height "steps up" as it slopes to the center of the property.

"If you want to have a taller structure, you can still build it," Morrison said." All you have to do is move a little bit away from the side setbacks."

The task force had extended discussions about the floor-to-area limits but eventually decided that the FAR protected massing of a building on a property.

The ordinance also offers a "greater of" clause, either 2,300-square-feet of space of a floor-to-area ratio of .4, which would be a house that is 40 percent of a total lot. That means that a smaller lot owner could choose the 2,300-square-foot limit and have a house that would have a floor-to-area ratio of .6.

Agent Mike McHone said that it was amazing how close the various sides were on the issue. To argue about floor-to-area ratio – either .4 or .5 – was to argue about only 700 square feet on a 7,000-square-foot lot. It’s an envelope of 15 feet versus 17 feet.

"It’s amazing that we pretty much have closure," said McHone, who has represented builders of some of the densest development in the central city. "I think if we study this just a little bit longer, we can get to a point that will work for everyone."

Some members of Council were cautious about such serious changes in code, especially in the early hours of the morning after four grueling hours of discussion. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, for one, suggested that a first reading would give the Council an extra two weeks to review all the comments, but McCracken moved to pass the ordinance on first and second reading, making future changes cosmetic.

The changes will mean amendments to the single-family zoning category, as well as other areas of the code, pointed out Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry. Those changes, authorized by Council for consistency, will be brought back to Council for approval.

The new rules, which would go into effect in October, will not come cheap. McCracken estimated it would require an additional four inspectors to implement both the McMansions ordinance and the new design guidelines. Over the next six weeks, McCracken will be working up a proposal to provide a line-item in the budget, a budget that already is stretched with new demands.

Panel says code enforcement needs more funding

Looking for ways to fund the city’s understaffed Code Enforcement Office, the chair of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC) thinks its time for a hike in the Pay-as-You-Throw garbage collection program.

The SWAC has been grappling with several issues in recent months in which a lack of enforcement has been identified as at least part of the problem, said Chair Gerard Acuña.

"We have inherited a high profile, labor intensive department, Code Enforcement," he said. "We need to find a way to fully fund the staff in that department. It’s important to many of the things we’re looking at to get results."

Rates for the Pay-as-You-Throw program are the same as they were when the program was created in 1996. The fees are $11.75 a month for a 30-gallon cart, $14.50 for a 60-gallon cart and $17.25 for a 90-gallon cart. The three sizes are designed to encourage more recycling.

In the past few months, SWAC members have been dealing with issues of overflowing refuse bins in the downtown area, complaints of permit violations at local landfills and waste haulers operating without a city license. While all those problems will undoubtedly need complex solutions, the one common denominator, Acuna said, is effective enforcement of the codes that are already on the city’s books.

Code Enforcement is charged with handling myriad issues, from construction and remodeling issues to illegal dumping to adult-oriented businesses. The city’s website lists 20 different categories of violations that the department is responsible for investigating.

In last year’s city budget, the Code Enforcement Division was consolidated under the Solid Waste Services Department. The city is divided into four districts, with one code enforcement officer available in each district, along with other resources.

"This may be an opportune time to raise the rates to pay for these services," Acuña said. "When you consider that the cost of fuel, labor and other items is rising, it may be that we can cover these costs."

Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes said his department is still adjusting to having the new department on board.

"I’m hesitant to propose any new positions until we can get a handle on performance standards," he said. "We need to develop performance measures for the positions before we can determine if we need more manpower."

Rhodes also said that he wants to encourage compliance.

"Our goal is voluntary compliance, not a heavy-handed approach," he said. He also added that the city was working with the Downtown Community Court to use manpower from persons ordered to perform community service to perform some of the functions. He said the city’s goal is to have a response for all code complaints within 48 hours.

But Acuña, along with some other members of the commission, plans to take a look at the department’s budget and see if there are ways to find more revenue to fund additional positions to give the city more flexibility in resolving problems created by code violations.

"The situation in many areas has deteriorated," he said. "Because there is no enforcement of many of the city’s codes, they (citizens) think they can get away with it. And they can."

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

More helmets, please . . . Former Mayor Bruce Todd will be holding a press conference at noon today at Brackenridge Hospital outside the Emergency Room. "We’re going to talk about the need for the Council to adopt a helmet law that applies to people of all ages as it did when it was originally passed in 1996," said Todd, whose own life was saved by a helmet during a bicycle accident last fall. Todd was Mayor in 1996, but says, "Frankly, the helmet law at that time was not my initiative … (but) it just made common sense." After Todd left the Council in 1997, the ordinance was changed so that it did not apply to adults. He added, "What is the message to children if we say at age 18 you can take off the helmet ? We’re no more immune to an accident at 55 than 15" . . . Gross makes her choice . . . Karen Gross, former aide to Council Member Brewster McCracken, said last night that she plans to attend the Law School at Golden Gate University in San Francisco this fall. Gross, who left her city job to pursue further education earlier this month, held a farewell party last night. However, she does not plan to leave Austin until August . . . Information, please . . . City Public Information Officer Kristen Vassallo has been holding down two jobs for about a year now. She is also Chief of Staff, a job which includes overseeing the Human Resources Department. The department is still completing an exhaustive market study of city wages. But sometime soon, Vassallo plans to give up the PIO part of her duties. City officials are said to be closing in on a new chief information officer . . . Parks clean-up . . . Volunteers from across Austin and the Lake Travis area will join together from 9am to noon Saturday to help combat trash around the shoreline and parks during the 21st Annual Lake Travis Parks Cleanup. Volunteers will also search for specially marked Don’t Mess with Texas "treasure" for the chance to win roundtrip airfare on Southwest Airlines. Last year, more than 400 volunteers collected more than 4,500 pounds of trash from the lake’s parks and recreation areas. Following the cleanup, participants are invited to an exclusive "thank-you" party at the West Service Center on Ranch Road 620 near Mansfield Dam. Volunteers will receive a free event T-shirt, lunch, and will be entertained with games and prizes. This event is also one of 25 stops on The Texas Department of Transportation’s Don’t Mess with Texas "Trash and Treasure Hunt." To volunteer for the cleanup, call Keep Austin Beautiful at 391-0622, or http://www.keepaustinbeautiful.org. . . . KDBJ gets SH 130 tryout . . . KBDJ quarry, located near Buda, has been asked to provide crushed rock for a research project on SH 130 to test different road base materials with the goal of producing a more durable, longer lasting road. The controversial quarry is currently appealing a denial by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District of a well drilling permit in order to operate, and is opposed by several groups in the Buda area. KBDJ is supplying material for the research study on flexible bases to Industrial Asphalt Inc., which has a contract with Lone Star Infrastructure, which is building SH 130 in Central Texas. The material is targeted to be installed on the test roadway in June. The four stretches will undergo field and laboratory testing under differing conditions during the roadway’s construction as well as under actual traffic loading once the roadway opens . . . Are you smart, or sweaty? . . . In our continued obsession with how we rank against other cities in a variety of categories, some more meaningful than others, we offer the following: A recent study by Bizjournals.com placed Austin as No. 3 among the "Smartest Cities in America." The poll, which looks at the education level of 53 cities’ adult populations, listed Austin’s arch-nemesis Seattle as first, San Francisco second and A-town third. On the positive side, we did manage to beat out centers of intellect such as Colorado Springs, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Diego, Washington, Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque. On the other hand–or should we say armpit?—Austin also received distinction in another survey this week, as one of "America’s Sweatiest Cities." Sponsored by—who else?—a deodorant company. Austin was ranked No. 7 among the nation’s hot spots. Phoenix was first, with Dallas fourth and Corpus Christi fifth. Curiously, Austin managed to edge out Houston, which came in ninth. The competition was based on an estimate of how much someone might sweat walking around during the average summer temperatures in the various cities. By the way, the least sweaty cities, according to the survey, were Seattle and San Francisco.

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