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Board unsympathetic to request for variance of six inches

Thursday, September 20, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

What seemed like a simple case for the Board of Adjustment became more complicated this week after neighbors showed up to protest a variance that would allow owners of property at 4708 Bull Creek Road to divide their property into two lots.


The property owners requested a variance for just less than six inches. City code requires the lot to measure 50 feet across in order to subdivide it vertically, as owners Lisa and Kimbrough Gray hope to do. While this is the width of the lot in the front, in the rear, at the 75-foot setback, it is just 49.51 feet across.


The Grays argued that denial of the variance could force their hand into building a flag lot, which is a lot that sits behind lots that have direct street access, with a long driveway that provides access to the lot behind the front houses. Though Austin City Council recently passed an ordinance to regulate flag lots, the request for a subdivision at this site was submitted prior to the code change, grandfathering the property in, and making a flag lot division legal.


Lisa Gray told the board that, while a flag lot would be easier, she felt the vertical division would better fit the character of the neighborhood, and that was her preference. She explained that the third alternative, to leave the lot as is and build a larger house was also unappealing.


With an allowed floor-to-area ratio (or FAR) of .4, the Grays estimate that they could build a house of about 6,500 to 6,700 square feet on the lot, which Lisa Gray called “extremely huge” for the area, where houses are typically about 3,000 square feet.


“If that’s what we end up with, I think we will end up selling, because we personally don’t want to develop a McMansion on the property,” said Lisa Gray, referring to the city’s Residential Design and Compatibility Ordinance designed to protect the character of Austin’s neighborhoods by ensuring homes are compatible in scale and bulk with the existing neighborhood.We just want to build two reasonably-sized and in-character houses.”


Caroline Reynolds, who spoke on behalf of Allandale Neighborhood Association, said the group opposed the subdivision, though it was not something they had not yet voted on. Instead, neighbors produced a letter of opposition from the neighborhood association president, Donna Beth McCormick who was unable to attend the meeting.


Reynolds pointed out to the board that the Grays were longtime Austin real estate professionals who were familiar with the land development code. She said that their problem was of their own making and “stemmed from a lack of due diligence and a desire for unreasonable financial gain.”


“We would rather see one single lot on that house… It’s very unfriendly, and family-unfriendly to have those popsicle-looking houses (where) there is nothing on the street and there’s this whole single house that goes back all the way to the back,” said Reynolds.


When asked about the flag lot option, Reynolds said that it would be preferable to the vertical division, saying that she thought it would have a “friendlier front to it,” and be more in character with the rest of the street.


This caught the attention of Board Member Fred McGhee, who demanded that the Grays explain why they thought the neighborhood was opposed to flag lots, as they had stated earlier. Kimbrough Gray said that this was the first time he had heard from someone who was more in favor of a flag lot.


Board Member Bryan King said that he felt flag lots and the potential for large houses on the lots, regardless of how they were divided, was what could impact the neighborhood character the most. He encouraged the neighborhood to have that conversation with the Grays.


“I live on a flag lot. I know what flag lots are about,” said King. “This is zoned SF-2, which doesn’t allow two-family residential there. If this divides, the way they could do it, as a flag lot, the neighborhood character is going to be one house behind another, which is going to take on the feel of two-family residential.”


The board voted 6-1 to postpone a decision and encouraged the Grays to take the time to talk to members of the neighborhood association in the meantime. McGhee said that he would vote to deny the variance instead, saying the Grays might return and apply again when they had things straightened out.

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