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Debate over West Campus home could spur ordinance changes

Monday, April 12, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A battle over a West Campus construction project has exposed lingering issues in city staff’s interpretation of rules meant to govern home remodeling. The conflict, which pits developer Mitch Ely against the Original West University Neighborhood Association, seems destined for an eventual Council debate — and perhaps a court date.


All this action comes as the Council seems set for a summer hearing on a long-delayed ordinance that would encode a specific definition of the term “remodel.” As it stands, city staff mandates only that one original wall and the foundation of a house must remain for work to be called remodeling. That definition is in the form of a written direction and is not formally a part of the City of Austin’s building code.


Greg Guernsey, director of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, told In Fact Daily that there has been “a great debate about what a remodel is within the city.” In his view, the pending ordinance will “probably help settle (those) issues.”


Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, for one, seems ready for a change. At Thursday’s Council Meeting, he told Guernsey, “For … at least three years, we have been working to modify and improve our remodeling ordinance to stop … loopholes and abuses.” “Right now, in my neighborhood, there’s a remodeling in progress … (with) one bare wall remaining; even the entire foundation has been replaced.”


“What,” he then asked, “is the status of our revision of the remodeling ordinance?”


Guernsey replied, and later confirmed, that the Council should see a version of the legislation sometime in June.


Leffingwell’s question was prompted by the Citizens’ Communication testimony of Nuria Zaragoza, president of the Original West University Neighborhood Association and a member of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (CANPAC). She told Council members about a so-dubbed remodel on David Street that she says will leave only “a portion of one wall and an old pier-and-beam foundation, which will be totally non-functional, since it will be buried underneath a brand new slab foundation.”


“This is not a remodel, not as measured by logic, and not according to the criteria that city staff have consistently used over the last three years,” she added.


According to Zaragoza, the new structure will be able to accommodate up to 12 unrelated adults and could include a garage apartment extension that might be as large as 1600 square feet. If the development were considered by the city to be new construction, rather than a remodel job, those figures would be cut in half.


Still, Zaragoza doesn’t think that a new ordinance would solve her neighborhood’s issue. “The new regulations will burden those who follow the rules in the first place, while owners like Mitch Ely will continue to work the system,” she told the Council.


She echoed those sentiments in an interview later. “Someone will always be able to run circles around what’s written,” Zaragoza said. “You have to be able to interpret (regulations properly).”


Council Member Laura Morrison, whose office has been following the case since this fall, told In Fact Daily that the new ordinance might indeed not be enough to solve the concerns of Zaragosa and her neighbors. “This is a complicated case,” she said. “There’s probably more to it than just remodeling.”


In terms of that opinion, at least, Zaragoza might find herself in agreement with real estate agent Mike McHone, who represents Ely’s David Street project. He told In Fact Daily that he doesn’t “believe that Austin should be trying to reinvent the wheel” with a new remodeling ordinance.


He noted that the new regulations could be “so strict that it would make remodels almost impossible.”


As for the David Street project, he maintains that his client has followed the rules. The massive demolition that resulted in the current contentiousness was necessary, he says, due to the extent of the damage that had been done to the property.


Still, he said, his group had been told from “day one” that the project might provoke some sort of action from the city.


For now, at least, Austin officials have indeed stepped in. Though accounts vary as to when Ely received notice of the order, as of this past Friday, a letter had been posted at the site ordering him to stop work. Stay tuned.

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