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BOA grants smaller setback for East Austin home

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The Board of Adjustment decided during its final meeting of 2007 to allow the new owner of a small property in East Austin to deviate from the city’s minimum standard setback requirement—in accordance with the published goals of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan. Brandon Testa is planning to build a new home on a vacant lot at 206 Waller St., and asked the Board for a variance to the minimum front-yard setback requirement because of the small size of his lot.


With a normal 25-foot setback, Testa said, he would be severely limited in the size of the home he could build on his 2,280 square-foot lot. Abiding by that setback, he said, would mean more than three-fourths of the lot would be reserved for setback. He also estimated that building to code, including providing space for parking, would leave him with only a few hundred feet of usable space, even with a two-story home.


Testa argued that other homes in the area were not held to the same 25-foot standard, presenting data on homes in the surrounding 12 blocks. Nearly 80 percent, he said, had front setbacks of 15 feet or less. “Based on the existing neighborhood setbacks of similarly-situated neighborhood homes, it is my opinion that imposing a 25-foot front setback is unfair and presents an unfair hardship,” he said. “It creates an extreme hardship. It discriminates against this property by imposing different standards than other, similarly-situated properties in the neighborhood are held to.”


Testa also presented information showing that the previous home on the lot, which had been torn down in the 1970’s, originally had a 15-foot setback similar to its neighbors. Furthermore, he said his request was in compliance with the goals of the neighborhood plan. “The residential guidelines of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan say on the front page, ‘front porches are encouraged with a minimum depth of five feet and width half the depth of the house’. That cannot be accomplished with a 25-foot setback,” he said.


But members of the neighborhood planning team contested Testa’s request. “We did support a variance to build on the small lot. But from the beginning when he first approached us, he told us he would not be requesting any other variances or modifications,” said Molly O’Halloran. “So we feel like this is an inappropriate request.”

Several other neighbors, including Gavino Fernandez, also protested. “When he bought this property, he was aware of the situation,” Fernandez said. “He was aware of the limitations on this property.”


Testa told the Board he had consistently represented to the neighborhood his desire for a 15-foot setback, which he believed would be allowed under set-back averaging rules. When that turned out not to be the case, he said, he turned to the Board of Adjustment for a variance.


While Board Member Bryan King was reluctant to grant the variance, saying there was little evidence of a hardship for development on a vacant lot, Board Member Greg Smith said the facts clearly supported Testa’s request. “This is a very challenging vacant lot to try to develop. When you take into consideration the evidence regarding the average setbacks for all the other residential units in the immediate area, none of them were even at 25 feet,” Smith said. “I’m thinking that the 15-foot setback he’s asking for is being consistent with all of the other residential units that are in the area.”


Smith moved approval of the 15-foot setback, but acting Board Chair Leanne Heldenfels suggested a 20-foot setback instead. That motion was approved on a vote of 6-0.


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