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Commissioners vote to support ban on floating homes on Lake Travis

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

This story has been edited to correct errors–Editor.

While lots of people enjoy having a home on the shore of Lake Travis, the Travis County Commissioners Court decided Tuesday that they were opposed to actually building your home in the lake.

Commissioners voted Tuesday to support a prohibition on floating habitable structures on Lake Travis entirely instead of allowing a 120-unit floating development to be constructed in a cove near Lago Vista. The Lower Colorado River Authority could adopt that prohibition.

Opponents of the development worried that it would set a dangerous precedent, legally and literally.

More than 35 residents were present to speak in favor of a prohibition on building floating houses, citing concerns about fire, water quality, flooding, and cost. The vote was delayed a few weeks after the developer, John Shipley, asked for the opportunity to present his plans to staff.

Though Shipley did have that opportunity, he was not present at yesterday’s meeting. He later told In Fact Daily that he was not informed that the item would be on this week’s agenda.

After hearing testimony from staff and a handful of residents, Judge Sam Biscoe cut the case short.

“The applicant is not here. The county staff is recommending against this project. The citizens who have come today have all testified against it. We haven’t heard anyone voice a sentiment in favor,” sad Biscoe. “In my view, rather than have your say, let’s see if we can let you have your way.”

The Court voted unanimously to support the prohibition.

Steve Manilla, executive director for the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, told the court that despite meeting with the developer, he still had serious issues with the project, with “the biggest being how much the lake can fluctuate, and the size of this development placed in this environment.” He added, “How do you get something the size of an aircraft carrier raised and lowered uniformly?”

The LCRA’s chief of water service management, Jim Richardson, explained that existing floating house developments in other states are not comparable to the proposed development on Lake Travis.

“The water quality aspect is a little bit more of a concern when it’s a public water supply reservoir,” said Richardson.

Some residents expressed fears that if water levels were to fluctuate rapidly, as in the case of a flash flood, permanent wastewater lines could be compromised.

“With Lake Travis fluctuating as much as 50 feet in a 24-hour period, we have different conditions that present a public safety issue that you don’t typically see on the coastal areas where they exist now,” said Richardson.

David Evans, head of the firewise committee for Comanche Trail Community Association expressed concerns about fire spreading up the hill to his neighborhood, and what could happen to the inhabitants of the floating homes.

“At this particular location, there is no direct fire road access,” Evans said. Residents would either have to wait for a ferry or swim across the cove.”

Neighbors also questioned whether land owned under water was equivalent to owning the surface of the water.

“It is unconscionable to imagine what it would be like on the lake if all property owners who had land under the water were permitted by law to float habitable structures in the flood plain,” said resident Larry Malmenstien.

When he asked who owned land under Lake Travis water, more than half of his neighbors raised their hands.

Additionally, commissioners and staff expressed concern that the development could cost a great deal of money. Manilla explained that there are currently no regulations for this type of development, no standards for inspection, and no staff to address these gaps. All of these things would need to be established.

“We’re still thinking that this type of development at this particular location is going to overlap in terms of regulatory authority between us and LCRA,” said Manilla.

LCRA currently has a moratorium on floating homes that extends until October.

Commissioner Karen Huber asked LCRA to enact a blanket prohibition on floating habitable structures for all of the Highland Lakes. “We have some authority, but we may not have all the authority, as the county, to do what needs to be done from a regulatory standpoint,” said Huber.

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