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Panel denies Honda dealership’s request to erect taller sign

Monday, August 20, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

First Texas Honda, one of the nation’s largest Honda dealerships, won’t be getting the sign of its dreams.


On Aug. 13, the City of Austin’s Sign Review Board voted 6-0 to deny a variance for the auto dealer to erect a sign twice as tall as city rules allow at its new location at 3400 Steck Avenue. Board Members Cathy French, Dan Graham, Nora Salinas and Michael Von Ohlen were absent.


Zoning regulations limit First Texas Honda’s sign to a maximum height of 30 feet – or a height not visible from MoPac. The applicant, Kevin Hull of Texas Custom Signs, requested a variance to increase the sign’s height to 60 feet, a move that found considerable opposition from neighbors.


Nikelle Meade, whose firm Brown McCarroll, L.L.P. had recently been brought onto the case, asked for a postponement. Meade told the board that she hoped an extra month would allow time to address the concerns of the neighborhood.


“I don’t believe that there has been any dialogue between the applicant, who is the sign company, and the neighborhood association. … I think that’s been part of the reason the level of angst on the issue is pretty high,” Meade said.


Two neighborhood groups, North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association and Friends of North Shoal Creek opposed the postponement and the variance. But after some debate, the board opted to hear the case.


Meade explained that without the variance, the sign would not be visible, and people would not be able to tell where the dealership was located. She said the topography of the area was not natural, and cuts to accommodate the nearby railroad tracks meant that the site was much lower than adjacent properties, necessitating the taller sign.


“It is not going to obstruct views. It is not going to alter the scenic nature of the area. Where we are is frankly not that scenic, although MoPac is a scenic roadway,” said Meade. “I think it’s important to know that we are not on MoPac. This sign is not on MoPac. It is on Steck.”


This reasoning didn’t sit well with some of the board members, who questioned why the sign should be visible from MoPac and were also concerned about what effect a variance might have on future signs.


“If you are buying property that is not on MoPac, it’s not a hardship to not be able to see a sign from MoPac,” Board Member Susan Morrison said. “I’d hate to see us start some kind of domino (effect) where the next lot gets a higher sign, and the next one gets a higher one just so everyone can see it from MoPac as they whiz by.”


A letter from neighbor John Ghidoni seemed to reflect the opinions of many of the opponents. Ghidoni wrote that there was no hardship unique to the dealership and “a variety of businesses at that intersection have done just fine over the years with non-gargantuan scale signage.”


Mary Arnett, with the Friends of North Shoal Creek Association, told the board that First Honda purchased the property with knowledge of the local regulations. She also posited that people typically did not spontaneously by cars based on seeing a sign.     


Ultimately, the board voted against the variance, with special recommendations to communicate with the neighborhood about future development on the site.


“They are at least 90 days into this thing and haven’t bothered to return a phone call to the neighborhood,” said alternate Board Member Will Schnier. “In a case like this, and in this city that is ridiculous.”


First Texas Honda plans to move this fall to the expanded Steck location from its existing home at 1301 West Koening Lane.

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