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Board of Adjustment says four walls needed for a “remodel”

Friday, June 18, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Board of Adjustment voted Monday to clarify last month’s rejection of a so-called remodeling project in a west campus neighborhood. In so doing, it moved to declare that property owners had to leave the basic four walls of their structures intact if they wanted their project to be considered a remodel.

 

The action came as the city’s definition of what constitutes such an effort remains a much-explored, but still vaguely outlined, question. Indeed, should the City Council act on a long-awaited remodeling ordinance at its June 24 hearing, it will mark the first time that any formal code has been written on the subject.

 

“A reasonable person knows what a remodel is,” Board Member Bryan King said. “And I know that it’s hard to get this drilled down to something you can quantify and hold in your hand versus what we’ve got out there now — which is nebulous hoo-hah, in my opinion.”

 

Until then, questions remain. Here, they revolve around whether or not there was room in the city’s interpretation of the term “remodel” for developer Mitch Ely to demolish most of a structure on David Street and rebuild it as such.

 

Original West Austin Neighborhood Association President Nuria Zaragoza originally brought the case to the attention of City Council during a citizens’ communication period in mid-April. She also appealed building permits that had been issued to Ely to the Board of Adjustment and the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals.

 

Though both bodies had ruled in her favor (see In Fact Daily May 7; May 13), Zaragoza remained concerned that city staff could grant Ely remodel status despite those verdicts. So permitted, Ely could build a structure that would have grandfathered code allowances. Those could include accommodations for up to 12 unrelated adults on the property.

 

Both Zaragoza and Ely’s agent, Mike McHone, asked the board for to reconsider.

 

After a brief executive session, King adjusted the motion he’d made in May. “The motion to grant the appeal with conditions that any residential site that has a structure demolished to the conditions like those at 1915-A David Street cannot qualify as a remodel,” he read.

 

King added that “the remodeled structure should retain the existing envelope for any section of the structure to be classified as remodeled and any additions to that envelope should be considered new construction.”

 

His language then became the center of a what-if debate. As board members engaged in a rolling exchange with Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey over hypothetical site conditions, and what might be permissible under King’s motion, a clearer definition began to emerge.

 

“I think what we’re trying to do, Greg, is … to clarify this to give staff the tools or the clarification that it needs to make these determinations,” said Board Member Michael von Ohlen. “So my feeling … is that anything that you add on to that building on the outside is new construction. Anything that you do inside those four walls, on that slab, would be remodeling.”

 

Von Ohlen further added that he and his colleagues “were trying to eliminate … (use of) that (remodel) loophole to grandfather things in.”

 

In the end, the board moved to wait for a written interpretation of their ruling from Guernsey. After the hearing, Guernsey told In Fact Daily that, based on what he had just heard, “to be a remodel you have to maintain all four walls of that structure.”

 

He added, however, that with its remodeling ordinance, the Council “could trump this action of the board because it would be an action by ordinance that would probably be clear enough to address the issues that were ambiguous here tonight.”

 

Staff plans to present the new remodeling ordinance to Council next week and seek approval after a public hearing.

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