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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Council rejects variance request for duplex in Waller Creek floodplain
Thursday, April 4, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
City Council dashed the hopes of a homeowner who hoped to expand in the floodplain last week.
Council voted 7-0 to deny the variance that would allow construction of a duplex at 4515 Speedway. Though the homeowner, Jane Gyarmathy has been working on the plan since 2007, a tight-lipped Council voted decisively against the variance with very little discussion.
“The Waller Creek Tunnel is not going to fix this portion of Waller Creek, and I think it would not be a good idea to density in the floodplain,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.
The property, which is located in the Waller Creek watershed, is partially in the 25-year floodplain and entirely within in the 100-year floodplain.
Kevin Shunk, the city’s floodplain administrator, told Council that in this area of Waller Creek, there were about 150 properties in the floodplain. He noted that because they are so far north, the Waller Creek Tunnel will not affect them “whatsoever.”
Built in 1934, the existing house is about 672 square feet. The proposed structure is a duplex that would be less than 3,000 square feet. In addition to that, the new plan would allow the building of a 675 square-foot covered deck and patio, 100 square feet of balcony and just less than 400 square feet of covered parking.
Shunk explained the proposed impervious cover, in total, would be about 44 percent.
“Obviously there are lots of incentives to increase density within the urban core; we just don’t feel an increase in density in the floodplain is necessarily a good idea,” said Shunk.
The owners were asking to build the duplex despite the fact that there would be no safe access from the structure in the event of a flood.
“The fact that the entire property is in the floodplain, and also the right-of-way in front of the property is in the floodplain, (means) really there is no way for this property to get safe access out of the floodplain,” said Shunk.
Shunk explained that construction of the duplex would mean increasing the non-conformity of the structure, because there would be increased occupancy within the floodplain without safe access.
The current co-president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, John Williams, asked Council to deny the variance.
“The safety concerns of this are an issue to us. We are taking a smaller house where two, maybe three, residents could live, with two or three cars. And we’re building a duplex with six bedrooms,” said Williams. “We know from experience that in our neighborhood these are marketed towards college students and many times more than six students live there, though only six are on the lease.”
Shaw Hamilton, who was a floodplain administrator for the city until he retired in 2003, was representing Gyarmathy, who has owned the property since 1999.
Hamilton explained that he had designed a house that would be above the floodplain, and withstand the flow of the creek under flood conditions. He told Council it would be a better structure than what currently stands on the lot.
Shaw said that in a flood the current house would create a “dam” in the creek, but the duplex that he designed would allow flood waters to flow under the house.
“There’s no obstruction of flow,” said Shaw. “I think it’s a better structure for her to live in. I think it’s a better structure for anyone to live in, compared to the 1936 house which is falling apart.”
Shunk explained that the proposed building would violate the “safe access rule,” which stipulates that you have to be able to walk from the house to a point on the right-of-way via a path that was at least one foot above the floodplain. The purpose of the rule is to avoid the creation of potential islands.
This is because although houses could be above flood water themselves, leaving the house and emergency access to the house would still be fraught.
Williams told Council that the developers had not been to the neighborhood’s development review committee. He said that if they had, there might have been an opportunity to work out something more agreeable to the neighborhood.
Williams also said that the project is in violation of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, which says that “any work or alteration of the flood plain or channel of Waller Creek should be of such a nature that it improves the general nature of the stream or minimizes erosion and flooding.”
City staff recommended against the variance, and found that no hardship existed. Shunk said that, according to FEMA, if a lot may not be developed because of floodplain regulations, that would constitute a hardship. However, because there is an existing habitable house on the lot, there is no hardship.
City Council was not asked to weigh in on the demolition of the house that is currently on the property, only the floodplain variance. A demolition permit has not been submitted to the city.
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