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Board of Adjustment does remedial work on Lake Austin regulations

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Continuing to grapple with being thrown into the deep end of Lake Austin regulations, the Board of Adjustment took a closer look at their new responsibilities at a specially-called meeting last week.


Changes in process flummoxed the board at a previous meeting, where they were surprised to be reviewing a variance for fill on the lake for the first time. At a subsequent specially-called meeting, staff explained that the change in process actually occurred in 2010, but such variances hadn’t been redirected until recently, when the Lake Austin Task Force recommendations brought the change back into the light.


The Board of Adjustment will primarily be looking at land capture variances, and were giving a briefing on the topic to get them up to speed. According the section of the code that deals with Lake Austin, if there is a variance that is not designated to go to a particular board or commission, it goes to the Board of Adjustment by default.


In a somewhat confusing turn, the Planning Commission will be taking over some of the shoreline development review that was formerly in the purview of the Parks and Recreation Board. This is a new process that comes out of recent Lake Austin Task Force recommendations.


At the same time, staff is currently revising portions of the Land Development Code that deal with shoreline development.


Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that staff is looking at consolidating all of the shoreline development and boat dock requirements as much as possible in upcoming Land Development Code changes so “it’s not quite so scattered.”


Putting things into simple terms for the board, Planning and Development Review’s Liz Johnson told the commission that it was unlikely that staff would ever support land capture on the lake, and if it was illegally done, they would like to discourage it.


“One of the things about Lake Austin is that we do have a problem with illegal development,” said Lesniak. He explained that this is “development that is done entirely without a permit or anything like that, or development where they come in and get a permit for one thing and build something very different. And it’s much more difficult to enforce on Lake Austin, because it’s done on the backside of people’s properties.”


Lesniak said that, even with enforcement, violations were a Class ‘C’ misdemeanor that required time-consuming pursuit in court. Because of this, he explained, one of the most punitive and effective things the city can do is force the property owner to remove the illegal development.


Carol Lee, who served on the Lake Austin Task Force, helped put some of the problems into perspective for the board. She explained that a Lake Management Division, or something similar, was already in the works.


“What we’ve just seen over and over again is a lack of any coherent management, or processes for applicants to go through,” said Lee. “You go to the BOA if you want 10-foot side-yard setback on land, you go to the Parks Department if you want 10-foot side-yard setback in water. It just didn’t make much sense.”


“And Lake Austin, for some reason, that 21-miles of our drinking water supply and our critical environmental and tourism resource has been the stepchild since the ‘80s, and it just hasn’t gotten the attention. It was considered a sleepy fishing lake… That’s no longer the case,” said Lee.


Staff explained that denials by the Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission cannot be appealed to City Council.


Several board members expressed concern that they would not understand potential environmental impacts of variances before them. Unlike other boards, as a quasi-judicial body, the Board of Adjustment does not receive staff recommendations. This concerned some of the board members. They asked that environmental criteria and potential impacts be included in their backup.

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