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Modified duplex gets zoning recommendation over ZAP chair’s objection

Monday, August 8, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a holdout from Chair Betty Baker, the Zoning and Platting Commission approved SF-3 zoning at 2508 Mitchell Lane. It was the first such zoning for the neighborhood in far southeast Austin. 


The Commission voted 5-1 to recommend the change, with Baker voting against and Commissioner Cynthia Banks absent.


The duplex was brought onto the property prior to annexation, pieced together from houses obtained from the old Bergstrom Air Force Base. Property owner Cara Griswold lived on one side with her children, and her ex-husband lived on the other.


“They cut a door between the two sides. They just shared a meter and shared the bills. They acted like reasonable people. He had his house, she had her house, and they did that for 14 years,” said agent for the owner Jim Wittliff with Land Answers, Inc.


Trouble arose when Griswold fell ill, and was told that she should leave the Texas heat for her health. Given the nature of the property, it proved to be a hard sell.


“At 2.26 acres, the cost of the land is so much that no one can afford it. Then you have this house, it’s not a house, it’s got two kitchens, it’s funky, and you can’t use it as a duplex. People were scared of it. Nobody wants it,” said Wittliff.


Commissioner Donna Tiemann explained the crux of the issue, “It’s kind of a question of whether you get maintain the SF-2 zoning and remodel it to be a single family (house), or, do you change the zoning to accommodate the existing structure then put in the taps to bring it up to the level it needs to be to truly function as a duplex?”


Without the zoning change, the owners could not obtain permits that would bring the non-conforming use into compliance. Wittliff explained that a remodel of the structure that would turn it into a single-family house would be tough.


Further complicating matters was the placement of a garage on the dividing line of the two lots, which joined the lots and necessitated that the zoning change apply to the entire tract which will later be divided into two lots.


Neighbors were initially sympathetic to Griswold’s plight, and signed a petition in favor of the zoning change. Several who had changed their minds were on hand to object to the change.


They worried that the change would lead to a duplex (or two) being built on the other lot, and felt they had been misled about the petition, which they understood to only apply to one lot.


Wittliff explained that he had added a conditional overlay which allowed only one duplex, the existing duplex, on one lot. The other lot was zoned SF-3 but would not allow another duplex, only a single family home with, potentially, a granny flat. The conditional overlay also prevents further subdivision of the lots.


“I thought that provided an additional level of safety to the concerns that the neighborhood has. I think they are legitimate concerns,” said Wittliff. “You all have seen subdivisions where people came in, the neighborhood is angry, and you can’t do a thing about it because it meets the codes and requirements… This gives the neighborhood a huge set of teeth on that issue. The property simply cannot be subdivided. I think that is a huge benefit to them; I’m not sure if it’s understood.”


Despite these safeguards, Baker chose to vote against the change, admitting that she was looking at the case “severely and frugally.”


“I am stating my position because of concern relative to precedent that we are setting. Because we have no SF-3 in this area yet,” said Baker.


After a discussion with neighbors, who remained dissatisfied with the change, Wittliff told In Fact Daily, “I’ve never worked so damn hard for one granny flat in my whole life.”

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