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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Board of Adjustment to tackle McMansion ordinance attic exemption
Tuesday, December 6, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano
The Board of Adjustment has begun considering a reinterpretation of the McMansion ordinance that could change the way attic exemptions are handled by the city.
Last week, the board voted 7-0 to postpone the hearing until their December 12 meeting, noting that the few days over a holiday weekend that they had to consider the 338 pages of documents they were given on the case were not sufficient for such a complicated case.
“I’d like to just make a note that the Board of Adjustment ruling on this case affects how the future code interpretation is going to be handled by city staff. And as such, if the decision is to reverse the director’s decision, then it has to be crafted in such a fashion to give clear guidance,” said Chair Jeff Jack. “The action of the board, possibly, to postpone this doesn’t have any direct impact on the particular project that is before us tonight. It has to do with the interpretation of the staff with regards to the attic exemption.”
The case centers on a proposed residence at 3704 Bonnell Drive that has long vexed nearby residents. While the agent for the appellants, Dowe Gullatt, cited four staff errors in the appeal, the bulk of the conversation centered on the McMansion attic exemption.
“I think there might be a problem with how the attic space is counted. And I’m going to just kind of float this out here: I think the problem has to do with this memo, which is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen,” said Board Member Heidi Goebel.
To qualify for the attic exemption, 50 percent of the “habitable space” must be under seven feet. In accordance with the memo, written by Daniel Word, the planning department currently calculates that 50 percent by taking the entire attic space into account — from eave to eave, instead of from interior wall to interior wall.
“My idea is that this memo needs to go away, and the definition of ‘habitable space’ needs to reflect more what is in the International Residential Code, which deals with just sleeping, living, eating rooms … It would make everything smaller by default, because you don’t get to count the whole thing; you just get to count the part that is the room,” said Goebel.
In a special called meeting of the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, Chair William Burkhardt made it clear that he disagreed with how the exemption was being handled. Burkhardt was on the task force that helped write the ordinance.
“The original intent was basically to give bonus space that didn’t add mass and scale,” explained Burkhardt. He was supported by Vice-Chair Karen McGraw, who also stated that it was not the original intent of the ordinance to include the entire attic area in the exemption calculation.
“If that were the case, if we were excluding those areas towards the eaves, there would probably be no attic exemptions,” said Planner Victor Villareal.
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