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Commission, neighborhood call for regulation of Lake Austin trams

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 by Austin Monitor

On Tuesday, the Parks and Recreation Department Board voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for the Austin City Council to consider more stringent regulation of trams along Lake Austin.


The resolution explicitly asks, “City Council and Planning Commission consider amending the Land Development code to require the review and permitting… and ensure consistent regulation and procedures for the construction of trams.”


The Lake Austin Coalition, made up of neighborhood groups, brought the matter to the board’s attention. They are concerned about the environmental health of Lake Austin, and particularly how trams and boat dock variances may be contributing to erosion problems along the shore. Neighbor Alan Roddy spoke in favor of a complete moratorium on tram building, although the resolution does not call for that. It’s unclear how many trams are currently on the lake, but there are at least a dozen.


Hal Engelhardt, a licensed elevator contractor, said his company Austin Dock and Tram, had constructed some of the trams along Lake Austin. He was in favor of the resolution, because he said the city doesn’t have a consistent approach to tram building. He noted that Lakeway and West Lake Hills require permits.


Engelhardt defended the trams, saying they have “a flawless safety record” and insisted that they didn’t adversely affect wildlife, pollution or water quality. Nonetheless, he repeatedly told the directors he favored a permitting process. “I’m all for permitting trams. I think there needs to be regulations,” he told In Fact Daily.


There’s a reason for that. Engelhardt says when his client recently lost $20,000 because the city bureaucracy didn’t know how to approve a tram. He said the city first required a 50-page document, which he showed to the board, to build a 400-foot tram near Mansfield Dam. “Basically, what I had to do to build this tram is the same thing you’d have to do to build a shopping mall or apartment complex,” he said. It included a site plan, environmental impact study and traffic surveys.


Engelhardt said that after he had designed a site plan, the city’s Planning Commission and Watershed Protection and Development Review staffer John McDonald “handed it back to me and said no permit necessary and no site plan necessary, go build the tram.” Engelhardt called the effort “a total waste.”


Bruce Aupperle, an engineer who has worked with several tram projects, said McDonald had sent him an email saying that he did not need any permits or site plans to construct a tram because it was an “accessory” building not attached to a house, garage or boathouse. (McDonald no longer works for the agency.)


Marceline Lasater, an Austin attorney, lake resident, and a volunteer on the LCRA’s Regional Council, believed that, in fact, city law already required permits, and therefore the resolution could legitimize the trams on the ground. “I personally believe… that permitting and variances are required, they’re simply not being demanded by the staff,” she said. “I believe the ones that are there that are not permitted are illegal and the city has the power to tear them down.”


Assistant City Attorney Holly Noelke said site plans are required when Critical Environmental Features may be affected and said that trams come up every 10-15 years and “as staff changes, the approach seems to change.” She said that an administrative variance could be an option, but it would have to show that construction preserved all the environmental characteristics.


Commissioners did amend the language in the resolution to read “Austin has not consistently required permits for trams…” and PARD directors voted unanimously for the resolution.


“Where does that leave me today? Do I go back to work?”  Engelhardt asked out loud when the voting was done. There is no timetable for when Council or any other committee may rule on the trams or the resolution.


City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy said that although trams do not need a building permit, they would still be required to abide by the city’s zoning regulations. He did say that the lack of a permitting process meant there was not a process for reviewing and verifying if the development meets the regulations.

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