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Planning Commission OKs variance for Lake Austin boat dock

Thursday, March 27, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though they faced criticism from residents on the other side of Lake Austin, the owners of a Rob Roy property are well on the way to getting a boat dock.


The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the variance for the dock at 5 Humboldt Lane, with conditions that no trams be built and trail construction takes into consideration erosion issues from construction and the project itself.


Commissioner James Nortey said the case was “very, very difficult,” and though he was satisfied that the environmental impact would be minimal, the legal issues were “murkier.” He said that the fact that the Rob Roy Homeowners Association could have possibly opposed the project under the private restrictive covenant and chose not to, 4ified the issue of the restrictive covenant’s enforceability for him.


The Planning Commission held an executive session to discuss the private restrictive covenant and its enforceability prior to voting on the variance.


Commissioner Brian Roark took issue with some of the comments that came from those who opposed the dock.


“To me, when folks walk up here and just flippantly say things like, ‘If they want to build a boat dock, they can buy the million dollar property next door. Why don’t they buy some other piece of property?’ I find that offensive,” said Roark. “The sense of entitlement you must carry to come up here and say these things, to me, is not appropriate and it’s not something I think we ought to reward. It’s certainly not persuasive.”


David Braun of Braun & Gresham spoke on behalf of the property owner Dr. Maureen Alexander. Braun is an attorney who specializes in helping property owners “be good stewards of environmentally sensitive land” and was formerly the director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, a founder of the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas, and first chairman of the Balcones Canyonlands Plan for Austin and Travis County.


He explained that Alexander has owned the land for 25 years without building on it at all. Braun said that while she now plans to develop less than an acre to build a house, “31.5 acres will continue as a nature preserve.”


As part of that plan, Alexander was seeking a variance to build a boat dock. The trail to the dock will cross rimrock, a critical environmental feature necessitating the variance from the city.


Braun told the commission that the Rob Roy Homeowners Association wrote in a letter that they did not oppose the boat dock and thought the restrictive covenant was no longer applicable. He noted that no one with standing in the covenant had spoken against the project.


Many of those who spoke against the construction cited the private restrictive covenant from 1979 that prohibits construction below the Lake Austin “bluff line.” This restrictive covenant will not be enforced by the city.


Among those who spoke against the variance was Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch, who worried about the precedent that could be set by the city’s refusal to enforce the restrictive covenant. He asked the commission to abide by the covenant as a lawful protection of the land.


Braun said that while he was truly empathetic with those who lived across the lake who had “really gotten used to looking at this beautiful land,” relying on the restrictive covenant was the result of bad legal advice. He explained that many lawyers had looked over the covenant and determined that it was unenforceable and it had been modified by a later city ordinance in 1986.

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