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Residential Design panel considers remodeling code again

Monday, August 10, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Residential Design and Compatibility Commission managed to parse, even more finely, the proposed changes to the city code on residential remodeling last week.

This is the second time the ordinance revisions have gone through the RDCC — really an update, of sorts – on its way to the Planning Commission and the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee before going to Council.

This is a rewrite that has been hanging since Council requested it at the end of 2007. The intention, with the assistance of neighborhood associations, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, was to provide clear delineation between a home remodel versus a home rebuild versus, even, new home construction.

Stakeholders are still split on a number of issues: how remaining walls are to be treated; whether existing penetration and wall openings, like windows, need to be maintained at their existing size; and a waiting period between remodel applications to discourage piecemeal rebuilding. Neighborhood representatives have proposed as long as five years between remodeling applications.

Opinions among the four RDCC members at last week’s two-hour meeting, almost all of it related to the proposed changes to the remodeling ordinance, were split on the various issues. Or, it might be more accurate to say each person on the RDCC had his or her own particular points of clarification and items of interest.

The remodeling issue – or the use of remodeling – is one of the core issues for why the RDCC was created. It’s been a lingering topic of discussion, too, at the Historic Landmark Commission, where “minor” remodels often become major teardowns.

Stakeholders also were united in agreement that the remodeling rules should not apply to affordable housing, Division Manager Kathy Haught told the RDCC. Haught also noted that some stakeholders thought it important to give homeowners more flexibility with remodeling because so many people needed to remodel to take care of older relatives.

Chair William Burkhardt, said he recognized that ordinances written to discourage activity – such as overbuilt teardowns – sometimes had unintended consequences on a homeowner who might simply want to add an extra room for a relative.

Commissioner Karen McGraw was not as sympathetic on the “older relative” issue, noting that nothing stopped someone from pulling down walls inside a house to make room for an older relative. Limitations on square footage, imposed by the McMansion ordinance or not, are part of the zoning requirements of any piece of property.

“If you’re going to really impact people, you’re not a little remodel,” McGraw said. “If it’s nothing more than an addition, like they say, tear down two of the walls, but don’t tear down the other two. If they do, then they’re going to have to come into compliance if they’re not compliant. I don’t understand that being a hardship.”

The whole intention for the RDCC, McGraw said, was to make sure buildings torn down to the ground, or walls torn down to studs only, were not considered a simple remodel when they actually constituted new construction.

According to planner John McDonald’s PowerPoint presentation, the difference between a remodel and a rebuild are clear. A demolition is 50 percent or less of exterior walls down to framing; with original building foundation intact; maintaining the current roofline; and non-compliant walls, if destroyed, must be built back to compliant standards in any new construction.

A rebuild must be 1,200 square feet, or less, of floor space, including parking structures. To be considered a proper “rebuild,” the new structure must be rebuilt within the same footprint with the same amount of gross square footage.

The commission also talked quite a bit about non-compliant structures. Often, non-compliant structures appear to get more latitude for breaking the rules than their new construction brethren. The goal of the remodeling ordinance, ultimately, was to bring non-compliant structures into compliance with code.

Commissioners on the RDCC had their own set of opinions on those issues where stakeholders divided. For instance, Burkhardt was hard to sell on keeping all prohibitions on the enlargement of windows in a remodel. When homes were built in the ‘50s, windows were small, often because of the limitations of window materials and insulation abilities. Today, it’s much more likely, and logical, that a homeowner would want to open or relocate windows, Burkhardt said.

The waiting period between remodeling applications also was a sticking point. Burkhardt noted that the current 180-day waiting period standard is enough to discourage custom builders or home speculators to rebuild the house from scratch. Burkhart said it was difficult to support anything as extreme as five years.

RDCC also was split on how much time staff should be given to review plans, with Burkhardt pointing out that many remodels occur the same day they are approved.

After some discussion, Burkhardt said individual members of the RDCC may end up coming up with their own individual opinions, all of them submitted to Council. Burkhardt encouraged some interim discussion before RDCC’s September meeting, with the hopes of coming to some consensus on the matter.

Burkhardt put the topic back on the Sept. 9 RDCC agenda.

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