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Zoning panel OKs permit to build docks on Lake Austin

Friday, September 7, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though its members expressed concern about setting a precedent, a divided Zoning and Platting Commission this week ultimately voted 4-3 to issue a conditional-use permit for Orleans Harbour Condominiums that will enable the owners to build docks that will extend into Lake Austin.


Orleans Harbour, located at 2419 Westlake Drive, proposed to construct eight boat docks along its Lake Austin shoreline, about a mile up from the Tom Miller Dam and just south of Westlake beach. That effort would constitute a marina land use, and would 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.


Though it was granted permission to tie boats on the lakefront side in a 1974 special permit, owners say that this is no longer a practical option due to increased turbidity on the lake.


The conditional-use permit approved by the zoning panel will enable Orleans Harbour to park 33 boats on site, 26 in the harbor and seven on the lake. Each slip will feature a solar-powered boat lift that will improve safety conditions, according to residents.


The commission approved the staff recommendation to grant the permit on the condition that improvements be made to the bulkhead, though those improvements fall short of bringing the bulkhead up to code.


Chair Betty Baker and commissioners Patricia Seeger and Cynthia Banks voted in opposition to the permit. “I feel that what we do here on this case is going to bite us or it’s going to be applauded for years to come,” said Baker.


Seeger said that the case could be a precedent for building on the lake.


Ellen Witt, who spoke on behalf of the development, showed the commission that Orleans Harbour owned the land under the dock, though the Parks and Recreation Department does not require ownership of submerged land to approve a dock.


After raising the questions earlier about what was permissible, Commissioner Gabriel Rojas said he understood that lakefront property owners were permitted to build out up to 30 feet on public land under code.


Rojas moved to approve the staff recommendation, explaining the information he received in executive session had cleared things up for him. He said that while updating the bulkhead would improve safety marginally, it wasn’t worth risking scrapping the project all together.


When asked, Witt told the commission that if the permit was denied it would most likely result in residents parking on the current lakefront bulkhead, despite safety concerns.


“Because we have run out of room to safely park boats, what would most likely happen is we’d probably have some residents, I know of a couple, who would want to go ahead and park out on the bulkhead anyway because we were permitted to do so and they would probably go ahead and do it,” said Witt.  “And it would be unsafe.”


Orleans Harbor balked at an initial request to bring the bulkhead up to current code, saying it would be too expensive. Additionally, since the bulkhead was not being altered made it unclear whether that condition could be attached to the permit. Instead, staff struck a compromise. Orleans Harbour agreed to install a “rip-rap toe” along the portion of the bulkhead where the new docks will be located. This toe will be at least somewhat effective in reducing overall turbidity caused by wave reflection.


Rojas said, “Since receiving a little bit more information about it, and understanding that the safety issue is from waves pushing a boat into the bulkhead, whereas the wave abatement from the bulkhead modification would reduce the waves pushing the boats back out. So, I see this as an in total safety improvement, if the bulkhead is improved or not.”


Some commissioners seemed unconvinced by arguments for a safer arrangement for its boat-owning residents while simultaneously denying a need to update the bulkhead to current code.


A substitute motion to move the docks and reduce their number was supported by the three commissioners who voted against staff’s recommendation. Baker was reluctant to support building on the lake. However, she praised the homeowners’ association, which had smoothed out a proposition that initially divided residents but subsequently gained support of over 90 percent of them.


“Now, everyone in the world is for it. Isn’t that amazing? I think (President) Obama would like to speak to you,” said Baker, who went on to express particular disbelief that the plan avoided the ire of “super-duper neighborhood groups”, the Real Estate Council, Save Our Springs or the Sierra Club. “It’s mind boggling to me that we started out with basically a civil war, almost with this case, and no we are all holding hands and singing Kumbaya.”

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