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Travis Commissioners consider septic variance for Barr Mansion

Monday, August 15, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A request from the owners of the historic Barr Mansion for a variance on their septic permit is giving some members of the Travis County Commissioners Court a bit of heartburn. Though there is sentiment on the dais that the court should work to help mansion owners in their capacity as small business operators, court members also worry about the broader implications of the variance, should they grant it based on the individual circumstances of the case.


“We don’t have the tax base—and I don’t think we should, frankly—to be able to have the regulatory robustness to go around and check on every single (septic permit) that we have out there and tailor it to flow constraints,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt.


Barr Mansion suffered major damage after a fire in June, 2010. As part of their rebuilding effort, owners of the property redesigned some of the facilities. In so doing, they modified the layout of certain on-site fixtures, including a dishwasher. As a result, their facility no longer meets at least the technical requirements for a septic permit under state and Travis County law.


D.J. Dietrich, engineer, attorney, and the father of mansion co-owner Melanie McAfee, last week argued that, as rearranged, the mansion’s layout doesn’t increase its septic output to an unreasonable level. Dietrich noted the additions of fixtures such as a new dishwasher, but claimed that they wouldn’t produce as much wastewater as their previous set-up. 


Though the code has since been updated, Dietrich argues that his daughter’s property should be grandfathered under the previous rules. Barring that, he suggested that a variance should be issued.


Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources staff told the court that they couldn’t recommend the variance. Stacey Scheffel noted that the county had already issued a septic permit. She said that this meant that there “is room on their property” for a septic system that meets requirements.


Both the county and the applicant say that it is too expensive.


Eckhardt worried that approval of the variance would set a dangerous precedent. “I have the utmost trust in Melanie and her uses (of the property). I know from a personal standpoint what her business practices are,” she said. “But there’s no way on God’s green Earth that I or any of our staff can have that level of familiarity with every single permit request that comes through … I have to have a level playing field for those that I don’t personally know.”


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber wanted the court to focus on the issue at hand. “I have a problem when we have small successful businesses that have been operating well, have a fire, have to rebuild, seek to try to improve the operations within that umbrella,” she said “I don’t see why we can’t look to see if there isn’t some way that when we’ve got a business in place and we have new rules and their proposed business plan that falls within the broader definition of what those goals and those rules (are) that we shouldn’t look for variances for things like this.”


Barr Mansion is a wedding and event facility housed in on the grounds of a late 19th Century homestead. Its reconstruction brought proclamation from the City of Austin.


The issue will be back before the court for a vote tomorrow.


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