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Board of Adjustment takes stab at defining ‘bedrooms’ in duplexes

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The City of Austin’s Board of Adjustment seized a chance to weigh in on an ongoing west campus case last week, making a ruling that will change the way the city defines bedrooms in duplex building plans.


Nuria Zaragoza, president of the Original West Austin Neighborhood Association, brought the case forward, appealing a decision to approve plans for a proposed duplex at 1917 David Street by Greg Guernsey, the director of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. 


Zaragosa opposed Guernsey’s interpretation of the building’s plans, saying that they showed more bedrooms than allowed by the city’s super duplex ordinance. That ordinance was crafted to prevent the building of so-called stealth dorms. Under the ordinance, staff must rely on the plans to determine the number of bedrooms.


Plans for the David Street house were compliant with the ordinance, in terms of labeled bedrooms, but Zaragosa questioned the truthfulness of those labels, pointing out, for example, that the design of the bathrooms meant that there would be 12 bathroom sinks for six residents, if the plans were followed exactly. She maintained that rooms labeled as game rooms and studies, were in fact bedrooms.


“I think sometimes labeling something is a bona fide way to indicate intent, but it’s not the only way,” said Chair Jeff Jack. “I think the building is structured in such a fashion as to provide the opportunity to do something that has been alleged, that if it’s going to happen that it be rented out to more than six unrelated people.”


Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said that staff’s decision was the best that could be done under the circumstances, and the board’s support of the appeal was not intended to be a reflection on staff.


“A lot of our planning and review is based on the honor system,” said Von Ohlen. “I know if I take white paint and write ‘pig’ on the side of a brown cow, it’s not going to turn it into a pig. It’s still going to be a cow.”


The board voted 6-1 to reverse the director’s approval of the building permit application for 1917 David Street. Board Member Fred McGhee voted in opposition, and Alternate Stuart Hampton voted in the place of an absent Melissa Hawthorne.


In May, frustrated board members were thwarted when the owners of the building withdrew their application for a permit. However, board members took the unusual step of making a recommendation to staff along with that motion which more specifically details what constitutes a bedroom. (See In Fact Daily May 16, 2012.)


Though the property owner, Michael Said, had altered plans slightly since May, the board did not see those changes as substantive enough to change their opinion. They also issued an official definition for bedrooms under the super-duplex ordinance.


In terms of ramifications for other developments, the board was clear that this definition pertains only to the section of code that deals with duplexes. “This is fairly contained,” Board Member Bryan King said. “We are trying to clear up some of the unforeseen deficiencies in the super-duplex ordinance.”


Mike McHone, who was representing Said, suspected that there may be unforeseen deficiencies in the new bedroom definition as well, though when he spoke to In Fact Daily he was still processing its impact.


“I think this is a very slippery slope that is something that may need to have further scrutiny. I believe the proper venue for this discussion was, and is, and remains the Planning Commission,” said McHone.


In a parallel process, the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee has also undertaken the issue, and that process is ongoing.


“I’m sitting here in my 75-square foot bathroom, and I’m wondering if it’s a bedroom now,” said McHone, who pointed out that the first section of the definition identifies a bedroom as a room that “has a minimum of 70 square feet in area and is not a kitchen, utility room, common living area or common circulation space.”


In addition to that requirement, plan reviewers will be able to identity bedrooms that are not labeled as such on plans based on exit areas for fire egress, and how it is configured in terms of privacy from of other spaces.


Two sections deal with how bedrooms are placed in proximity to bathrooms, and the access to those bathrooms, noting that a bedroom might have access to multiple full-fixture bathrooms through common areas.


In an email to In Fact Daily, Zaragosa said, “We will appeal as many times as necessary, until the owner submits a set of plans that complies with both the letter and the spirit of the code.”


“What I understood the ruling to be, in my opinion, sent a message but does not close the loophole. Our hope is that (the Planning and Development Review Department) is open to that message, and will administratively put the necessary parameters in place for their reviewers to identify and reject plans that do not comply with the existing bedroom limits,” said Zaragosa.

McHone said he would pursue an administrative appeal.

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