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Board puts off considering variance for house not yet designed

Monday, December 17, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment has decided to take a little more time on an odd case that came before them last week – a variance request for a house that isn’t there, and has yet to be designed.


“Granting a variance for a house you haven’t even designed yet is a problem,” Chair Jeff Jack told East side property owner Kevin Smith. “I think you’ve got the cart before the horse.”


Smith owns the property at 1200 Cotton Street. Right now, there is nothing built on the small lot, which measures just about 40 feet across and 85 feet deep. Smith was requesting a reduced side-yard setback of just five feet, citing the presence of two large heritage trees as a hardship.


Smith explained that his intention was to figure out whether a variance would be granted prior to commissioning the architect, so he would understand what the setback requirements would be before getting into the work of designing a house.


Plans or no plans, Smith has asked for the variance because 64 square feet of the otherwise buildable land is taken up with the critical root zone of the two trees. Board Member Bryan King wondered aloud about the math of gaining 230 square feet through the variance because of this lost 64 square feet.


“The goal here is to push the home as far away from the trees as possible. These are two extremely large heritage trees. And while the arborist has allowed us to get within 17 feet, any distance that we could get additional to push away from that would be better for the trees,” said Smith.


“The home itself has yet to be designed,” said Smith, who told the board that the house would probably be 1500 to 1600 square feet. In total, the lot is 3502 square feet. According to Smith, protecting the trees “to the greatest extent” with the current setbacks would mean building a house that is 10-15 feet wide.


“I understand what you were trying to accomplish. You wanted to go ahead and see if this variance was available and then design accordingly,” said Board Member Michael Van Ohlen. “I’m going to suggest that you get together with the neighborhood contact team for the Navasota area, because they are pretty active, and just meet with them.”


The side-yard setbacks on the property are already reduced – from ten feet instead of the normal 15-foot setbacks. This is because the lot is small, and considered an “urban home,” which is different from a single-family residence, and considered a special use.


Central East Austin has adopted the Urban Home criteria to aid the city in fulfilling infill and sustainability goals


“You might want to talk to them about some kind of design and what you can do,” said Von Ohlen. “It is very hard for us to grant a variance on something you haven’t even started yet, because literally you could build anything that could be in compliance on this property.”


Although the request was unusual, Von Ohlen indicated a desire to support the variance before he learned about the lack of communication with the neighborhood.


The board postponed the case until their January meeting.

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