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Zoning panel mulls permit for new Lake Austin boat docks

Monday, August 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A cautious Zoning and Platting Commission held off last week on granting a residential condominium development in West Austin a conditional use permit for the construction of several docks that would extend into Lake Austin.


The developers of the condos, called Orleans Harbour, propose to construct eight docks to accommodate seven boats along its Lake Austin shoreline, an effort that would constitute a marina land use and increase the mooring spaces along the waterfront. The increase in mooring space would be a conditional “community recreation” use under the current MF-3 zoning of the harbor.


“Whatever we do, tonight, or whenever we act on this, it is going to be landmark action as far as this commission is concerned,” said Chair Betty Baker. “It’s going to have to apply to anything else that comes in on Lake Austin. We will set a standard, or we will lower a standard. That’s our problem.”


Orleans Harbour is located at 2419 Westlake Drive, about a mile up river from the Tom Miller Dam that creates Lake Austin and just south of Westlake beach. Though it was granted permission to tie boats on the lakefront side by a 1974 special permit, owners say that this is no longer a practical option.


“In the 40 years since that permit, the lake has changed,” said Ellen Witt, who spoke on behalf of the development. “It has gotten rougher, and it has gotten too rough to use the boat tie-ups on the lakefront side.”


Witt added that the community has permission to park 40 boats on site, and that the new permit would actually reduce that number to 33, meaning an overall reduction in boat traffic. She further explained that, though the current harbor configuration worked for a long time, there was no longer room to park owners’ 33 boats on site.


The new proposed lakefront docks will extend about 30 feet into Lake Austin, and will accommodate seven solar-powered boat lifts. Twenty-six additional boat lifts will be constructed in the interior harbor. The lifts, argue residents, would improve safety conditions because boat owners now must step down from a retaining wall, or bulkhead, into a boat that is invariably shifting in the water.


“The lifts all around the property speak to one issue: that is one of safety,” said Orleans Harbour resident Kevin Hegarty. “Today we ask owners, boaters, to step 12 inches down into a moving boat from a fixed object. … My next-door neighbor almost lost her arm doing that when she slipped and her arm went in between the bulkhead and the boat itself. What a lift does is move the boat to a very stable platform that is almost even with the bulkhead, so you are going from fixed surface to fixed surface.”


In conjunction with the construction of the proposed docks, Orleans Harbour has agreed to modify its flat vertical bulkheads, which exacerbate negative wave action. Instead, the development will construct a “toe” structure along a portion of the bulkhead, which will reduce the negative wave action, and associated sediment build up.


However, these modifications fall short of bringing the bulkhead completely up to current standards, something that seemed to irk Baker.


Site engineer Bruce Aupperle explained that staff told him that they could not require a redo of the bulkhead under the circumstances, but that they instead asked for an “incremental change towards the current standards” by stipulating that the toe structure be constructed.


Baker was dubious. She asserted that the commission could demand the bulkhead be brought into compliance with the current code, though she acknowledged that Austin City Council could override that.


“I think we have a problem with not applying, or not requiring, compliance with current regulations,” Baker said. “That’s my personal feeling. I realize it’s expensive. But I don’t think there are too many out there that live out there in these condos that get food stamps or anything. I think they’re well able to support it, to bear that cost, and that may be something that they need to look at more seriously.”


In the end, the commission closed the public hearing and placed the conditional use permit on its Sept. 4 agenda for action only. They requested representatives from the Parks and Recreation Department and city legal staff be on hand for the meeting, and for the developers to provide commissioners full site plans in the interim.


“I appreciate the presentations and the explanations, and my nautical knowledge has increased several fold, but I don’t have a conditional use site plan before me that answers all the questions,” said Commissioner Jason Meeker. “And I think that’s the important thing for a newbie to a nautical plan, like myself.”

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