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New regulations are coming to Lake Austin, but not quickly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Environmental Board members took a look at the proposed changes to the Lake Austin Ordinance last week and decided they needed a bit more time and information before they were ready to weigh in. The board voted to table any decision, and send the ordinance to its Water Quality Regulations committee. The panel plans vote at its next meeting.


“It’s just really difficult to put a new ordinance on Lake Austin,” said Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. “And yet, things have to be dealt with some way out there in some way other than the old-fashioned cowboy, frontier ‘Let’s just do whatever we want to’ out there. We can’t do that anymore. We are becoming a huge metropolitan area. We’ve got to do some things to protect what is so precious to us.”


The proposed changes came out of the work of the Lake Austin Task Force and its recommendations. The Environmental Board took up two major code amendments to come out of that process: the creation of a Lake Austin Zoning District Overlay, and a new Shoreline and Dock Ordinance.


The overlay is intended to offer protections like those that exist in the current Lake Austin zoning, but unlike that strategy, the protections would not be lost if the zoning within the overlay was changed. Houses in the overlay that fail to conform to the overlay’s restrictions would be considered “legal non-conforming” by the city.


As proposed by Austin City Council, the Lake Austin Overlay would apply to homes within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of Lake Austin. That number could change to a staff-proposed 500 feet. The Council proposal would apply to 1,500 parcels that do not currently have Lake Austin zoning, and a reduction to 500 feet would change that number to 275 parcels.


In the overlay, all of the Lake Austin zoning requirements would apply except for the minimum lot size requirement and all setback requirements, aside from the setback from the shoreline. The overlay would also impose a maximum impervious cover of 20 percent (35 percent for those lots platted before 1982.)


Currently, the Lake Austin District has 75-foot setbacks from Lake Austin, which are intended to protect the riparian zone, which protects water quality (among other things.) Board Member Mary Ann Neely proposed that number be changed to 100 feet, arguing that increase would afford much better protections for the source of Austin’s drinking water.


The change was met with resistance from Board Member James Schissler, who argued that it would prevent people from redeveloping their land.


Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak put the dispute into context, saying, “The ship sailed on Lake Austin being a functioning ecosystem a long time ago. We feel like the 75 feet is a reasonable compromise between providing some riparian habitat for the shoreline, and stabilization for the shoreline…and providing adequate and reasonable use for people’s property.”


In addition to the overlay, the board took up changes to shoreline and dock requirements, which are extensive.


Herrington told the board that one major change in boat and dock requirements was the explicit definition of “allowable appurtenances.” Under code, habitable structures on docks are not permitted, and this is made clearer by saying that a dock is allowed to have a closet, roof, second floor, lockers, railings, electrical connections, lighting, non-mechanical access, slips, and non-potable pumps and connections.


The current interpretation of the current code is that trams are not allowed on Lake Austin’s shore. That prohibition will be made clearer in the code revisions, and trams will continue to only be allowed after obtaining a variance from the city.


Staff also proposes changes to the section of the code that allows modifications to non-complying structures. While maintenance will be allowed, structural changes will require a site plan, and bringing the dock up to current code.


Docks will be limited to 1,200 square feet, and 30 feet in height. Enclosures will be limited to 48 square feet. Docks will only be allowed two slips with storage limited to two boats or the equivalent. The changes also include shoreline vegetation requirements, land recapture and bulkhead replacement standards.


Staff also proposes to allow administrative approval of environmental variances within 500 feet of Lake Austin.


“We would treat those variances the same way we treat all other variances except variances to S.O.S.,” said Environmental Engineer Chris Herrington. “So staff would be able to administratively approve variances to the CEF buffers and other things that are basically guaranteed to happen for most shoreline modifications.”


The Environmental Board will consider the changes again at its next meeting, March 19, which isn’t expected to affect the City Council’s schedule.

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