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Court looks at floating habitable structures on Lake Travis

Thursday, April 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court appears poised to take some kind of action over the issue of floating habitable structures on Lake Travis. Though the Lower Colorado River Authority has already voted to place a moratorium on such buildings along the highland lakes, the court seems ready to do something more permanent.


“If these structures aren’t (permanently) prohibited, well, they are habitable … residential structures and the county does have residential building codes,” said Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols. “And if they are condominiums, we long ago came to the legal conclusion – supported by an (Attorney General) opinion – that a condominium is a subdivision of property, for which a plat is required.”


“I raise that point to say that this is not necessarily all (Lower Colorado River Authority’s) game,” he continued. “Just because these structures are on water doesn’t exempt them from normal development regulations that the county has adopted and enforces.”


Nuckols’ suggestion came as the court discussed a potential resolution that would express the county’s concerns over the issue. Should the court act to enforce a ban on floating habitable structures, it could impact plans for a condominium and marina project that would sit on top of Lake Travis in the vicinity of Cypress Creek Cove.


For Travis’ executive in charge of Transportation and Natural Resources, Steve Manilla, this is a bad idea. “There are issues with how you will construct this in a way that anyone who is living on it could be evacuated in the event of an emergency – how you construct it on a lake that rises and falls over 40 feet and can rise and fall in a night is an issue,” he said.


He added that environmental issues are also of concern.


After the hearing Manilla elaborated on this for In Fact Daily. “I imagine that you can engineer anything but on a lake that goes (through) that much difference over night … how do you accommodate something like that?” he asked.


He listed specific problems. “Emergency services. How do you deal with utilities? You’d have to have a flexible type of a system for getting water on to it and wastewater off of it and into a system that can treat it properly,” he said.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber has been vocal in her opposition to such development along the lake. In this case, she told her colleagues that it was “important that we get out in front of” the issue.


“It does have an impact on county services,” she added.


The LCRA’s moratorium prohibits floating structures “that contain commercial or domestic sleeping quarters such as homes, residential developments, resorts, hotels, and other similar structures.” It extends until at least October 31 of this year.


The authority became involved after agency employees reported to the organization’s board in September that “rapid population growth, a trend toward changes in real estate use, and the types of future development being considered on the Highland Lakes have the potential to impact water safety and water quality.”


A series of hearings have been scheduled so that the public can offer their thoughts on the subject. It will also conduct a nationwide study of the issue.


LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma doesn’t believe that any further action from her organization will come until this fall. She noted that the organization wants “plenty of time to talk with people.” 


County Environmental Quality Program Manager Jon White told the court that a ban on the structures wouldn’t be unprecedented. Still, Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told the court that though she sees that there is a “serious issue,” she isn’t quite ready to call for an outright ban.


The issue will be back before the court on April 26.

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