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Environmental Board backs controversial variance on Lake Austin lot

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 by Mark Richardson

Despite fervent opposition from neighbors, a “comedy of errors” by city staff and an eyebrow-raising sequence of events, the Environmental Board last week recommended approval of a request for a variance to the city’s Land Development Code for a landowner looking to build a home on Lake Austin.


The variance would allow the building of a bulkhead and adding backfill – which has already been constructed – in the Critical Water Quality Zone along the shoreline of the property at 2700 Edgewater Drive, where owners Nathan and Farrah Chelstrom have been planning to build a home since 2006. The variance request is scheduled to go before the Zoning and Platting Board tonight.


The controversy over the project stems from a debate over just where the “shoreline” on the property should exist. The issue is whether it got there through a series of bureaucratic bumbles perpetrated on a naïve property owner or through a deliberate and calculated plan to circumvent the city’s building codes and illegally “create” land on a lakefront lot that was too small for the structure originally planned for it.


Chelstrom said he was attempting to manage the project by himself and any mistakes he made were out of a lack of knowledge about the process.


“I have never really dealt with anything like this before,” Chelstrom said. “I just tried to do what the city told me I needed to do, and this has turned into a nightmare for me and my family, who are still trying to build a house four years after we started this process.”


At issue is whether Chelstrom had the proper city approvals to rebuild a deteriorated bulkhead some eight feet farther out into Lake Austin from the site of the one he was replacing and to add fill material behind it, thus gaining extra land on which to build his house. Chelstrom provided documents showing that he received a site development exemption from the city in 2007 to “repair or replace” an old, dilapidated bulkhead at the site shortly after he bought the property.


However, after he began construction activity, the city showed up (based on a citizen complaint) and red tagged the project, saying he did not obtain a proper permit and that the earlier one was issued by mistake. Neighbors opposing the project also claim that he should have built the new bulkhead in the same spot as the one he was replacing, rather than putting it further out into Lake Austin.


One of Chelstrom’s neighbors on Edgewood Drive, Alan Roddy, told the board that he observed much of the process that went into the building of the new bulkhead and he believes that everything was done by design.


“The lot has always been too small to build a house on it,” he said, “and he knew that when he bought it. But by extending the bulkhead out there by eight feet, he found the extra land he needed. He only had a permit to rebuild or replace the bulkhead at its original site. Everyone else on this part of the lake has to live with the original setbacks.”


Another neighbor, Ann Finch, was more direct.


“He presented false information to the city to get his permits,” she said. “He needs to tear out the new bulkheads and restore the lot to its original condition.”  


Chelstrom said he talked with officials in the city’s Watershed Protection Department later in 2007 – who eventually issued what he believed was a proper permit – and he completed the bulkhead. Shortly after it was finished, the city placed another stop work order (based on more citizen complaints) on the site, saying once again that the project lacked the proper permits.


Despite some discussion between Chelstrom and city officials, the issue remained relatively dormant until earlier this year, when Chelstrom filed an appeal of the stop work order so he could begin building his house on the property. The city determined that Chelstrom should have filed a proper site permit for the construction. He then filed such a permit, but it was determined that he still needed the approval of a variance from the Parks and Recreation Board, Environmental Board and Zoning and Platting Commission in order to proceed.


The Parks Board – which has jurisdiction over navigation issues in Lake Austin – narrowly approved the building of the bulkhead in August. However, the board was spilt 5-2 on the issue, and also voted to deny the Chelstrom’s application to build a boat dock at the same site, mainly as a punitive measure over concerns about the tactics used in building the bulkhead and that the matter would set a precedent that would allow others to move their property out into the lake in a similar fashion.


Environmental Board members were primarily concerned with finding a fair way to resolve the issue. Board Member Mary Ann Neely said there was plenty of blame to go around.


“This has been a comedy of errors,” she said. “If the applicant had gotten a professional to help him through this process, many of the problems here could have been avoided. But the city staff also needs to be vigilant in taking steps to make sure that these kinds of mistakes are not repeated.”


However, member Jon Beall was not so forgiving.


“The only documentation he used to move the bulkhead to the new location was one that said he could repair or replace the existing bulkhead,” he said. “The construction was quite different from that, and he gained significant benefits in the process. The new retaining wall was not built to the specs. I am troubled by all this.”


The Environmental Board’s vote was 4-1 for approval, with some conditions. Beall was opposed and members Bob Anderson and Robin Gary were absent.

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