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Commission rejects homeowner’s bid to build out garage

Friday, September 9, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Homeowner Michael McGowan picked the wrong commission if he expected easy approval of his garage conversion at the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission this week.


McGowan had the support of 31 of his surrounding neighbors for his construction proposal: reopening an expired building permit on his detached garage that was never closed in, then adding glass doors to the garage structure so he could sit and watch his daughter and her friends go swimming in a backyard pond. Those changes seemed manageable to McGowan.


“What we are deciding is, literally, how to use our space that’s already there,” said McGowan, who only realized in the last week he had serious opposition. “What I’m saying here is this is not new construction. That building is there, and it’s not going anywhere. All we want to do is change the way we use that space.”


But this house, which McGowan bought with his wife after a year of renting it, was not without its own troubles. As the story emerged from both sides in the hearing, the structure was expanded and remodeled by the now-defunct ARB Homes & Design, which apparently came into the West Austin neighborhood and maxed out the space on a number of speculative properties right as the McMansion ordinance passed.


While McGowan saw himself as the victim of a builder who “fibbed to me and fibbed to the neighborhood,” Blake Tollett of the West Austin Neighborhood Group saw a house already given liberal and excessive exemptions.


Not only was the main house at 3508 Clearview already 3,300 square feet, there was what neighbors described as 210 square feet of “stealth” living space in the upper floor and a generous 450-square-foot garage intended for two cars and not for any kind of habitable living space, Tollett said.


“I understand it’s not going to change the bulk, but I think it runs contrary to the McMansion ordinance,” Tollett told the commission, which only had four members in attendance at the meeting. McGowan knew better, said Tollett. “I would point out these are not unsophisticated people in real estate matters. They lived in the house a substantial amount of time prior to purchasing it. They should actually be charged with knowledge of this.”


Tollett also noted that the house already was at the high end of the floor-to-area ratio range. Most of the homes in the neighborhood had an FAR of around .25. Nine of the 12 that exceeded .4 were built during the ARB dash to expand. To give McGowan even more space would create an FAR on his property of .45.


There were questions also about the garage setback. When the garage was reconstructed, it was closer to the neighboring property. But it was pointed out that a 5-foot setback was approved when construction plans to expand the property were approved by the city back in 2007.


This was a case, as new Commissioner Mary Ingle highlighted during commission discussion, which could have gone to either the RDCC or the Board of Adjustment. Chair William Burkhardt agreed that it could and could even be returned to the Board of Adjustment if the RDCC rejected it. That choice, however, would require McGowan to prove some type of hardship.


In his defense, McGowan argued that the garage conversion would never serve to turn the structure into habitable space. The space had no air conditioning. No plumbing was to be installed within the garage. No new walls would extend out and up from the existing garage structure. The doors would simply give McGowan and his wife a chance to create a sort of enclosed porch so that they could watch the activity in their yard and at their pool.


McGowan’s arguments fell on deaf ears at the RDCC. Opening up the garage permit did add another 19 square feet to the floor-to-area ratio. The commission, in consultation with neighborhood leaders, agreed that would be okay. The request to turn the garage into a pool house/storage area, however, fell flat.


“We have a problem with converting that garage into habitable space,” Tollett said. “If they withdraw that, then we’re not going to have a problem.”


The final vote was 4-0, to approve reopening the garage permit and denying a request to convert the garage space. Commissioners Lucy Katz, Chuck Mains and Missy Bledsoe were absent from the meeting.

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