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Board, citizens confused over process for safety inspections

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

With two separate cases stymied by a quest for an elusive “life safety inspection” required by the special exception process, the Board of Adjustment has called for assurances from city staff that the problem will be resolved.


Last May, City Council passed the special-exception ordinance that allows homeowners to get a pass on small violations that have existed for more than 15 years. As part of this process, however, the Board of Adjustment needs proof of a life safety inspection that shows the non-conforming aspects of their home do not pose a risk to residents or others.


Unfortunately, obtaining that certificate is proving difficult for some Austin residents. The board faced two separate cases recently that demonstrated how the difficulty citizens face in trying to get the elusive safety inspections.


Chair Jeff Jack and Board Members Heidi Goebel and Melissa Hawthorne have also formed a working group to look into the process of obtaining special exceptions.


Susan Walker, senior planner for the city, said: “There’s some miscommunication on what a life safety permit, for the purpose of special exception, is, and I’ve had several applicants try to go and get that and there was some confusion.”


The board postponed two cases last week due to an absence of the life safety inspection, despite both applicants having gone through what they believed to be the correct inspection process.


In fact, Donnie Gerault, who was representing the property owners at 3005 Brass Buttons, had his case postponed last month to obtain the safety certification.


In both cases, applicants were unable to obtain life safety permits because the special exceptions dealt with structures other than a house, which means that the special-exception inspection runs up against conflicting standard procedures. The first case involved a wooden deck, the second a covered patio.


In the second case, Annemarie Bagby of 8005 Finch Trail discovered while doing some other work on her house that some structures on her property were not up to code. She and her husband asked for the special exception.


Bagby described an altogether confusing process to the board. She said on May 30 a city staff member told her “out of the blue” that she needed the life-safety inspection. Bagby said the inspector didn’t know why she was told it was necessary, and warned it would not be issued in time for consideration by the Board of Adjustment.


She told In Fact Daily that there was a dispute within Planning and Development Review prior to the Board of Adjustment hearing about whether or not the inspection was required. Bagby said that she followed up the Thursday before the hearing, saying that she assumed, since she had heard nothing further, that the inspection was not required. That Friday, she learned that she had to fill out an application and get a permit for the hearing on Monday.


“It’s been a lot of back and forth. It’s been a lot of rejection. It’s been a lot of mixed messages and no guidance. And I’d like to point out that this is all for legacy code issues that resulted from something the very first homeowner did,” Bagby said. “The impression that I got before the hearing was that it was still kind of a new thing that hadn’t been hammered out yet or something.”


“We have a fundamental problem here,” Hawthorne said.


Jack said, “We didn’t make the rules, City Council made the rules, and staff is supposed to implement it. … When they come before us at the Board of Adjustment, they have their report in hand to meet the ordinance requirement or we can’t act.”


Jack initially contemplated waiting to hold requests for special exceptions until there was a way to meet the code requirements. But he opted to ask staff to present a report at the board’s July 9 meeting showing how the problem will be resolved.


Principal Planner John McDonald told the board that there was a meeting planned for this week to address the problems over issuing life-safety permits, specifically concerning the department’s software. He explained that current program does not allow for life-safety permits for structures that can not to be occupied.


Both staff and the newly formed working group will also address the confusion of homeowners seeking special exceptions in a more general sense.

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