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The Board of Adjustment and the case of the phantom road

Monday, September 24, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin’s Board of Adjustment showed mercy for a West Campus homeowner last week, voting unanimously to approve a variance necessitated by a late-in-the-game revelation of a road unbeknownst to anyone.


Jim Bennett, representing the owner of 1308 Old 19th Street property, explained that it was a case of “hidden identity” that brought them to the Board of Adjustment seeking variances to decrease the front and rear street setbacks.


When Karrie League, owner of the property (and co-founder of the Alamo Drafthouse), was issued her certificate of occupancy in late August, she probably thought her new two-story house was in the clear of gaining all the necessary approvals. But only after the permitting, inspection and issuing a certificate of occupancy was the existence of the phantom Cliff Street discovered. The oversight was caught with the title survey, which is performed just prior to issuing the title for the house.


Bennett said that Cliff Street was dedicated in the late 1800s, but never completed because of a steep slope at the location. Instead, the street dead ends at the top of the hill, right before a 37-foot drop-off over about 80 feet of would-be road.


The surveyor explained that Cliff Street, which exists only on paper at this location, was the proper front of the house. This meant that the house was in violation of the setback requirements, as the owners had constructed the house under the mistake that the house fronted a road that was actually built.


“The front setback is actually on a long narrow side of the lot, which in this case is Cliff Street,” explained Bennett.


“We feel as though it would be an undue hardship to have to cut a brand-new house based on an error supported by the city staff and inspection staff,” said Bennett. “The subdivision was actually approved back in 1895. Since that time, this portion of Cliff Street has never been built. We presume, because of the severe topography problem, that they can’t get the continuation of the street in there.”


League, the property owner, told the board that she was completely blindsided by the revelation that Cliff Street went all the way down the side of the hill.


“I brought this property and subdivided it because I was worried the property was going to be purchased and a big condominium building was going to go there and sort of loom over our neighborhood,” said League. “I embarked on this project with the full support and encouragement of the neighborhood association.”


League told the board that she had the support of most of the neighborhood, with four of her closest neighbors showing up in person to support the variances.


Only one neighbor showed up to protest, Mary Sanchez, who identified herself as “one of the people most harmed by this development.” Sanchez brought forward concerns about drainage, impervious cover and how the structure was permitted in the first place.


Bennett told the board that Sanchez was not likely to even be able to see the “encroachment into the non-existing Cliff Street” from her property, which is at the top of the hill where Cliff Street dead ends. Bennett explained that there were no other problems with the construction.


Bennett said that while the city would not put anything in writing about their intention never to complete Cliff Road, or agree to vacate the land, the grade did not meet city requirements for construction.


“I believe that we did try to talk to someone at the city about vacating, but because we did already submitted our application for the Board of Adjustment hearing, they didn’t want to talk about it,” explained League.

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