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ZAP approves controversial Lake Austin bulkhead

Monday, September 13, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Zoning and Planning Commission, like the two commissions before it, Tuesday night approved the construction of what can best be termed an illegal bulkhead on Lake Austin, with Chair Betty Baker calling the owners “very lucky.”


A split ZAP had to admit, like the Parks and Recreation Board and the Environmental Board, that mistakes had been made all around in getting the bulkhead approved and built. The bulkhead extends a lot at 2700 Edgewater Drive an additional 15 feet into Lake Austin and the critical drinking water protection zone.


“Young man, you’re very lucky if this motion passes. You don’t know how lucky you are,” Chair Betty Baker told owner Nathan Chelstrom. “I really think you are, personally, I think that you took part of my land.”


The motion, which overruled staff’s recommendation to deny the environmental variance, passed on a vote of 5-2, with Donna Tiemann and Patricia Seeger in the minority.


Owners Nathan and Farrah Chelstrom, joined by their engineer Bruce Aupperle, lawyer Terry Irion, and contractors, have faced off with neighbors at least three times now at various commissions. Each time, Nathan Chelstrom has attempted to explain why construction on his property is in limbo, even though he was under the impression that he had the city’s stamp of approval on the replacement of the bulkhead and construction of a 2,300-square-foot home on his property.


The story involves a series of steps over the last three years and the coordination between the environmental review and building permit departments that eventually led to halted construction: an approved site development permit; a red tag from environmental staff; the red tag lifted by someone else in the department, followed by a request for a full site plan, which led, in turn, to a second work-stop order.


Chelstrom noted that he is seven months into a 12-month construction loan for his home and that all he has to show for it is a poured foundation. At the Environmental Board, a variety of conditions were put on the fill between the old and the new bulkhead, turning about half the 1,100 square feet into wetlands.


“I think the Environmental Board has come up with an equitable solution with the modified site plan, which creates a wetland bench,” said Chelstrom, noting that his own team’s evaluation concluded that the bulkhead was not a danger to the lake. “This is your opportunity to follow the Parks Board and Environmental Board to approve my variance and end this nightmare for me.”


Chelstrom’s pregnant wife, Farrah, was more emotional, talking about neighbors’ hostility toward them, dismissing the claim others had made that the lot was only large enough for a boat slip, denying claims they had clear-cut the property, and saying neighbors were so angry they had thrown dog feces on her property.


Irion, for his part, was quick to note that the only issue before ZAP was the environmental variance for the bulkhead and its fill. Irion argued that Chelstrom was a well-meaning but poorly prepared homeowner simply attempting to fix his bulkhead issue on his own when the lake was at its lowest levels. Neighbors argued the Chelstroms knew what they were doing and that the additional fill on their property, and its new shoreline, added another $1 million in value.


Adding to a property, even if it’s eroding, is forbidden on the lake. Neighbors like Wayne Youngblood, who has been on the lake for 30 years, found it inconceivable that Chelstrom did not understand what extending his bulkhead had done. And even Baker had to admit she found it hard to think anyone was innocent when it came to the decision, from owners to staff to commissioners.


What did appear clear was that the Chelstroms could not back up their home – what with the foundation poured – without significant financial hardship. And Baker found it difficult to imagine that the case had dragged on for three years.


Commissioner Sandy Baldridge said the Edgewater case, like a number of cases in recent months, seemed to amplify a lack of coordination between the different sides of the house over in the Planning and Development Review Department.


“You’re not getting a really good rep out there with the public,” Baldridge told staff as she got ready to vote for the motion.


Seeger couldn’t get past the benefits, intended or unintended, that the Chelstroms had reaped from their expanded property.


“There’s been a lot of interesting facts, a lot of fingers pointed, a lot of accusations made,” said Seeger at the point of the vote. “When you strip all of that away, though — and we know that both sides made some mistakes — I am looking at this and asking, ‘Did the applicant enhance his land value? Did he build out into Lake Austin and take land?’ And, to me, the answer is yes, and that’s why I support staff’s recommendation.”

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