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Board of Adjustment says no to exemption for illegal South Austin porch

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment thwarted an attempt to hold on to a treasured South Austin porch Monday night, voting against a special exception that would allow the porch to remain at 2004 Goodrich Avenue.


The homeowner, Lindsay Lane, explained that she built the concrete slab, decking and roof with a friend in 1995 or 1996, later improving it by screening it in. It was that screening in that presented a problem to the board.


The Board had previously denied a variance for the structure in 2011, and denied a reconsideration request in 2012. Changing her strategy, Lane sought a special exception from the board Monday night. Special exceptions allow structures that have been in place for 15 years or more to remain standing if they are requested before June 7, 2013.


In November 2012, City Council changed the language of the special exception ordinance slightly. While initially the ordinance said that under certain criteria the board “may” grant a special exception, Council changed it to “shall” in order to limit the board’s discretion.


Lane argued that her porch met the criteria necessary to grant a special exception, including an explanation of this change in language. While she maintained the change meant her exception should be granted, the board ultimately disagreed. They voted 4-3 to deny the exception, with Chair Jeff Jack, and Board Members Nora Salinas, Bryan King and Melissa Hawthorne voting for denial. Board Members Michael Von Ohlen, Fred McGhee and Sallie Burchett voted in favor of granting the variance.


“I’ll vote for it, but not with much enthusiasm, because I think there is a type of formalism and legalism going on here that I find somewhat distasteful,” said McGhee. “I understand City Council’s intentions in changing the ordinance, but bottom line is I will support this.”


Von Ohlen made a motion to grant the variance, acknowledging it may not prove popular, but offering kudos to Lane for doing what she felt was right.


“I know it takes a lot of work sometimes to get something that you feel is right, and stand by your principles, because you are doing what you feel is right. You did that. I commend you for that. A lot of people would rather just kick the can down the road, or put their head in the sand, or hang their head and go their own way,” said Von Ohlen.


Lane said she was “very disappointed and confounded” by a lack of support by the Zilker Neighborhood Association. Board Chair Jack is a member of the association.


“Zilker Neighborhood Association’s assertions and accusations have nothing to do with what I’m doing,” said Lane. “My goal is bringing my property into compliance, so that I can have two separate electrical meters for the two houses. There’s no hidden agenda. There’s no short-term rental.”


In a letter, Lorranie Atherton wrote that the Zilker Neighborhood Association Executive Committee supported the original ruling by the Board of Adjustment. Atherton explains that the new application presents evidence that the open wooden deck and arbor have been replaced with an enclosed slab-foundation porch with a “roof designed to shed water towards the adjacent property.”


This enclosure, explains Atherton, was constructed within the last ten years, making it ineligible for the special exception, which requires structures to be at least 15 years old. The letter goes on to explain deeper problems the neighborhood association has with the structure.


“Since the initial hearing… it has become clear that 2004 Goodrich is just one of many properties within the neighborhood where owners are trying to convert structures that were built without permits, or were permitted as accessory structures, into separate rental units (especially short-term rentals.)” writes Atherton. “The ZNA executive committee requests that special exceptions in these cases include restrictions on the use of the structures as short-term rentals.”


But neighbor Lou Rigler said that the assertion that Lane was going to use the property as a short-term rental unit was “not only stupidly wrong, but potentially slanderous, and certainly insulting.” Rigler explained that the porch was open-aired, only about 130 square feet, and there had never been any intent shown to rent the porch out on a long-term or short-term basis.


Lane said that there were two reasons why it was so important for her to keep the 14 inches of porch that encroach into the setback. First, in her discussions with city planners and inspectors, she had been told repeatedly that her porch meets all of the requirements of the special exception ordinance, regardless of improvements, because the footprint has remained constant.


“My other reason is sentiment,” said Lane. “I raised my daughter on that porch. I had celebrations on that porch. I’ve written books there,” said Lane. “In this town, where there’s so much new building going on, it’s comforting to keep something intact that has so much meaning to this family and the community that surrounds us.”


“I thought the City Council created this ordinance so that citizens could bring their unpermitted, quirky additions into compliance as long as there is no hazard to health or public safety,” said Lane.

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