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Commission nixes plan to turn house into auto inspection station

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A request to change a home into a vehicle inspection facility in the Montopolis neighborhood gained no traction at a meeting of the Austin Planning Commission, despite the surprising support of representatives from a neighborhood planning group.


The commission last week refused to recommend the change in a unanimous 9-0 vote, but the discussion surrounding the request revealed splits in the near south East Austin community.


Carolina Mandujano purchased her home at 6606 Felix Avenue about a year ago, and is seeking a change from single-family (SF-3-NP) to Neighborhood Commercial Services Mixed Use (LR-MU-NP) which would allow for the operation of a state inspection station.


In January, the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team voted in favor of the zoning change, with the stipulation that the only use permitted under the new Limited Retail (LR) mixed-use zoning would be for a state inspection facility for automobiles.


Unfortunately, this distinction does not exist under code. A permitted service station use would allow all of the service station uses, such as repairs and oil changes, in what is a  predominantly residential neighborhood.


“The community there is very sympathetic to the issue of our people having small businesses,” said Susana Almanza, president of the Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. “You have to understand that our community is going to support our community. They are going to support them and the things that they want to do.”


But planning commissioners said the proposal was not in the best interests of the neighborhood.


“I really, really feel for the applicant and I just don’t see that this property is the right place to have this kind of business,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “Compatibility standards and the other requirements will really, literally, make it impossible to do this use legally on this lot.”


Caitlin Harris Moore spoke in opposition to the zoning change. Moore is president of the Frontier at Montana Homeowners Association, which is a Montopolis subdivision. She cited potential increase in traffic, negative impact on home values and the previous violations as reasons for her opposition.


Moore also objected to the applicant taking part in the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team’s vote over her objections, saying it violated the bylaws of the group.


“For a group to be representing the general Montopolis area, I don’t feel that they are representing it fairly or completely,” said Moore.


In September 2011, the owner of the property was cited for operating a commercial auto repair business in a single-family zoned district. After removing vehicles from the property and ceasing repair services, the case was closed in November.


In March 2012, a 22-inch diameter catalpa tree was removed without the required city-issued tree permit, and that case remains in progress. Neighbors showed pictures of the lot, which has been cleared so that the front yard is now bare dirt.


Staffers determined that these violations were not relevant to the rezoning request, and did not base recommendations on them. However, they opposed the zoning change, saying the zoning was not compatible with nearby properties, and set an undesirable precedent in the neighborhood.


“If you look at the context, what this proposal is really doing is proposing to replace a single-family home with mixed use, both business and residential. So there is an encroachment issue, and it’s replacing something,” said city Planning and Development Review’s Lee Heckman. He added that the likely need for variances to complete the project was also a precedent the city wished to avoid.


Heckman said that while there had been commercial development at a nearby intersection for decades, it had not progressed outward into the largely residential area.

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