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Planning Commission subcommittee studies reviewing staff variances

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A Planning Commission subcommittee appeared ready to move forward with a review of current administrative variances, although it may take a couple of months to define which cases will get the additional scrutiny of the commission.


Staff’s administrative variances generally are considered routine and placed on the consent agenda. Rarely do land use commissioners question them.


However, some Planning Commissioners raised the subject of whether they should review certain controversial administrative variances at a recent Planning Commission retreat. It was a topic at last week’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee meeting and, in an unusual twist, an executive session with city legal staff.


Commissioner Saundra Kirk called for a wider review of administrative variances, focused on conflict areas. It’s still uncertain how the list might be narrowed, although staff promised a full listing of variances for consideration at the subcommittee’s meeting on June 21.


“I only want ones that have some level of technical complication,” Kirk said, alluding to recent subdivision cases that have caused heartburn among commissioners due to differing findings between staff and outside consultants.

The conversation then led to a discussion of how the appeals process might work. Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd said, in terms of procedural efficiency, both the approval of the variance and the appeal of the variance should be done at the Planning Commission. 


This choice, to provide a list of administrative variances for possible commission review, will require some additional parsing by staff and commissioners. For instance, commissioners do not appear interested in reviewing staff-related variances based upon changing the scale of a map.


As Commission Chair Dave Sullivan noted, plenty of cut-and-fill variances pass through Planning Commission without a hitch and without need for additional scrutiny. Technical reviews are not a chief concern of commissioners.


What remains, in the coming month, is a directive to city staff to come forward with a list of the remaining more substantive administrative variances, ones that might be fodder for conflict. Such variances, it appears, would be subject to commission review, with the possible amendment of existing variances.


Commissioners are also expecting to see language on considering deed restrictions in land use cases. In the past, private deed restriction measures have been considered separate and apart from consideration.


Commissioner Mandy Dealey wants them considered, to avoid wasting the time of the parties involved in protests. The language provided to staff was to develop language to amend code or policies such that deed restrictions would be taken into consideration whenever a subdivision waiver or variance is considered and that the administrative approval of that waiver or variance would not impair a deed restriction.


Homeowner Allan McMurtry, who sued the city last year, addressed the subcommittee on what he considered to be the city’s illegal approval of the subdivision of lots within the Shoalmont area. He interpreted portions of state law to supercede city code. Lloyd said the city disagreed with McMurtry’s interpretation of the law, and that the section in question only applied to the City of Houston.

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