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Planning Commission votes for expansion of McMansion ordinance

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Despite some weak protests from the homebuilder community, the Planning Commission had no problem last night supporting the expansion of the McMansion ordinance to areas south of Ben White Boulevard.


The swift approval by the commission might raise the question as to what is limiting the application of the ordinance to any neighborhood that might request it. In this case, it was the Southwood Neighborhood Association and the “Bird Streets” that asked for their area of town to be included in the ordinance.


Harry Savio of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin quoted an audit that noted that the city’s One Stop Shop was not fully staffed. And homebuilder Scott Turner questioned, given the light turnout at meetings in the area, whether the community understood the implications of the ordinance.


“The process has a feeling of really being fast-tracked,” said Turner. “When it was passed initially, there was quite a bit of public awareness. I don’t feel this is the case in Southwood.”


On the other hand, Turner also said the benefits from the ordinance probably wouldn’t be as significant as homeowners might expect. And he questioned whether the standards might limit use of denser single-family category zoning. This area, south of downtown, was one of the last areas in the city where infill, and reasonably priced infill, could be offered by homebuilders.


“The stakeholders need more time so everybody understands what the ordinance means,” Turner said. “It was almost impossible for me to understand the first time I read it, and sometimes it takes a second or a third time to get it.”


The McMansion ordinance was originally crafted to address inner city infill on smaller lots where too much house was being crowded on too small a lot. The problem in Southwood was just the opposite. Neighbors worried that their large lots, with their small houses, made property too attractive to developers.


“We’re not opposed to growth, but we do want control over what happens in our neighborhood,” said Southwood President Missy Bledsoe. “Our houses are small and our lots are big. We want to keep the character of our neighborhoods.”


Members of the Planning Commission had no problem giving the McMansion expansion a nod, after it was clarified by Director Greg Guernsey that the One Stop Shop had hired additional planners since the city audit. Members also clarified that sufficient notification had been given to local homeowners.


The unanswered question came from Chair Dave Sullivan, who asked what impact the McMansion ordinance has when it comes to the scale of houses. When the ordinance came through the first time, a comprehensive spreadsheet was provided to commissioners, allowing them to review and compare the range of houses up to McMansion size.


“I’m not sure if it’s really hindered redevelopment in the neighborhoods that have the McMansion ordinance right now,” Guernsey admitted, adding that remodels and additions have dominated over new construction in the central city of late. “What we can do is revisit the study and see if we can update that with information over the last year.”


The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend the expansion of the McMansion area, with Commissioner Jay Reddy absent.

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