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Commission learns it can’t hear appeals of historic district standards

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A first challenge to a local historic district’s design standards could lead the Historic Landmark Commission to take another look at an appeals process.


Castle Hill is one of three approved local historic districts in Austin. Two years ago, the 150-home neighborhood spent significant time with stakeholders agreeing to design standards on building height and massing, appropriate materials and setbacks and architectural styles and garage placement.


Some of the recommendations in the document were suggestions, said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. Others were “shalls,” making certain guidelines mandatory for any construction in Castle Hill.


The problem for 1007 Blanco was the “shalls” in the standards. Architect Dick Clark, who lives in the neighborhood and actually served as one of the reviewers of the Castle Hill design standards, intends to put a new single-family home on a lot at the intersection of Blanco and Tenth Streets.


Architect Mark Vornberg, speaking on behalf of Clark’s firm at Monday’s special-called Historic Landmark Commission meeting, said the firm considered its design to be acceptable because it placed the proposed garage on an alley. Alley placement was exempted from standards.


Unfortunately, that still placed the structure at the front of the 50-foot-wide property, and that was expressly prohibited under design standards. The design, Vornberg said, was made as a special accommodation to the property.


“This project is directly across from the historic fire station No. 4,” Vornberg said. “It’s a working fire station, and that’s problematic because it’s a source of light and noise.” To deal with that concern, architects proposed to move the garage to the front rather than the rear. “It’s unique to this property,” he said.


The choice may have been unique to the property, but it also was expressly prohibited by the design guidelines. Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Alyson McGee, who reviewed the case, said the guidelines were silent on appeals or waivers. The Historic Landmark Commission had no latitude in the case.


Chair Laurie Limbacher, while insisting the commission could do little, said the Historic Landmark Commission should learn from the case.


“A great deal of effort was spent in the Castle Hill guidelines to distinguish between what was absolutely required versus those things recommended as good practice,” Limbacher said. “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Clark is learning it in this way, but I think it’s something to keep in mind as future design standards move forward.”


Neighborhood opinion appeared to range from those who were opposed, such as zoning chair Larry Halford, to neighbors who were more sympathetic to Clark’s plight and possibly open to a potential appeals process, such as Laura Porcaro.


Halford argued the predicament of Clark’s property was not unique to the neighborhood and that the lot offered two potential access points.


“We have plenty of similar properties along the street,” Halford said. “They can put (the garage) along that south property line. There are no holes, no trees, no obstacles. From our perspective, it’s a matter of choice. I fail to see why there’s a need to deviate from this standard.”


Porcaro, on the other hand, said the property already had to meet at least five restrictions under a private restrictive covenant signed with the neighborhood in 2007. Now the design standards had set the bar even higher.


Clark was a participant in the guidelines and a resident, Porcaro said. Shouldn’t the neighborhood, at the least, consider a potential review process? That was the question she was hearing from her neighbors in Castle Hill.


“We’re in a tough position as the first local historic district case. A waiver is something we didn’t discuss. Because there is no way to waive or not to waive, we were told that the standard is what it is, and we really can’t oppose or support anything. It’s a really bad situation to be in, against our neighbors.”


Commissioners John Rosato and Daniel Leary seemed sympathetic to finding a solution: Leary because he thought the design of the house made logical sense and Rosato because he believed that no standards can take into consider the parameters of every single case.


An ordinance change, however, would have to start with the Codes & Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission. Rosato urged McGee to discuss with the city’s legal department what steps might be taken on future cases, even if the timing was not right on Clark’s garage.

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