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Council rejects Pemberton McMansion appeal

Monday, June 6, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The City Council has denied the appeal of a decision from the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission on a so-called McMansion duplex case, a case that emphasized how subjective some commission choices can be.

Owners Betty Trent and Jeff Barger want to build what they consider to be comparable new construction on their lot in the 2800 block of Wooldridge, expanding the structure from 2,800 square feet to 3,600 square feet, including a three-car garage. The problem is, that would increase the floor-to-area ratio on the property from 40 percent to 45 percent.

“My husband and I have been trying to start a new home in the Pemberton area and have been denied the FAR increase, and, as our last appeal, we are here,” architect Betty Trent told Council. “We have been characterized as sophisticated developers when we are homeowners, designer, and architect who enjoy designing great places to live.”

The two did not get much support from Council. Their appeal failed, 5-2, with only Council Member Randi Shade and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez favoring changes.

Shade wanted some clarity on whether neighborhood compatibility was an issue. William Burkhardt, chair of the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, could not offer much assurance as to a checklist on commission criteria for approval or denial. Neighbors, for instance, have called the style of the home incompatible for the neighborhood.

“We consider all of the elements and requirements of the history of the applications that have gone before us and how they will all generate the impact and the neighborhood issues we are discussing on a particular case,” Burkhardt said. “Each case is actually addressed individually. There is no specific bias for or against duplexes, style or any particular applicant.”

The West Austin Neighborhood Group’s Blake Tollett, meanwhile, noted that the developers had no doubt recognized what they were facing with a potential zoning change. Still, Trent, for her part, had gathered more than 80 signatures favoring her zoning change, 55 of which had easily verifiable addresses. Local neighborhood groups, however, said “no” twice to the redevelopment option.

Tollett said WANG’s decision against the change had nothing to do with the project or owner but rather with latitude on what ended up being a vacant lot.

“These people bought this lot and they had the little duplex on it and bought it right during the interim of development regulations, prior to McMansion,” Tollett said. “I remember Betty being at some of the hearings. They knew what they were buying. They knew the regulations coming to them … This is about money, is what this is about. They want more square footage than the current code allows.”

Shade told the commission chair, “I read the letter, but when I heard neighborhood opposition, I heard a lot about style. I heard a lot about it doesn’t fit in or it’s too big. And I was curious, do you go down the punch list?”

Burkhardt insisted the RDCC had criteria to evaluate a final decision, although he failed to articulate the specifics of the Wooldridge case.

“Each of the commissioners listens to and understands — listens to each case on an individual basis, and outcome is never certain for any applicant,” Burkhardt said. “We saw, and we postponed a case that was substantially or ostensibly modern, and then granted the waiver. We regularly deny requests for FAR increases from houses that will always be characterized as traditional in style. So it truly is an individual situation with every applicant.”

Commission decisions on parameters such as massing and scale, said Council Member Laura Morrison, are sometimes subjective rather than objective. Every situation requires individual review as to its context.

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