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Fire officials recommend reviewing flag lots for safety

Monday, September 21, 2009 by John Davidson

As part of a broad effort to update city planning policy, the Zoning and Platting Commission’s Flag Lot Subcommittee agreed Wednesday night to a recommendation that would require the Austin Fire Department to review and approve subdivisions and resubdivisions that have flag lots.


So-called flag lots are properties that have been carved out of a larger parcel of land and are connected to a city street only by a narrow strip—or “flag”—of land. The city requires these flags be at least 15 feet wide, but the odd configurations of such parcels can present problems when it comes to things like fire department access.


At Wednesday’s meeting, the subcommittee invited Austin Fire Department’s Chief Engineer, Carl Wren, to explain the factors he considers when reviewing a flag lot. One of his main concerns, said Wren, are flag lots within existing subdivisions, where houses are built two and three deep, connected to the street only by a narrow strip of land. Often, houses on these flag lots are connected to the street only by a driveway, not a road capable of supporting fire trucks, and can sometimes be hundreds of feet from the nearest fire hydrant. If there were a fire, firefighters would have to park on the street and drag hoses to the house by foot.


“It’s just a matter of time, that’s the real issue,” said Wren. “How long does it take to get there?”


According to Wren, all private drives or streets that service more than two houses must meet the city fire code; the fire department must be able to get its vehicles to the house—and turn its trucks around.


“If it looks like a driveway, we won’t take our truck down it,” said Wren, adding that a city fire truck weighs about 40,000 pounds and a ladder truck weighs about 80,000 pounds. If the driveway is not built to meet the city’s fire code, the road will likely crumble under the weight the trucks.


The solution, said Wren, is to ensure that any parcel that’s been divided into flag lots and that has more than two houses on it is in compliance with the fire code. In practical terms, that would mean that developers would also need the Austin Fire Department to review and approve their plans along with other city agencies.


The review process for new subdivisions already includes the fire department. But for resubdivisions—where flag lots are most likely to be found—city agencies will sometimes ask the fire department to join in the review process, and sometimes not, said Gregory Bourgeois, the subcommittee’s chair. Or, a reviewing agency will ask for a fire department review but then go back and change something and not notify the fire department.


“It’s just not consistent right now,” Bourgeois said. “So there are no new rules today, no new policies, this is just to add some consistency to what is being done now.”

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