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Board rejects setback variance, says small house is too big for its lot

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

It’s a really small house, but according to members of the Board of Adjustment, it’s too big for the lot. A request for a second setback variance for an East Austin home failed to win sufficient support from the board last week, despite the fact that the house is already in place.


Cayce Weems moved his 816-square-foot house to 403 San Saba Street after getting an initial variance from the city. But Weems measured incorrectly. He returned to the Board of Adjustment, asking to change the side street setback from 14 feet to 13 feet and to change the side yard setback from 5 feet to 2 feet.


The board denied the variance in a vote of 4-3, with Chair Jeff Jack and Board Members Sallie Burchett, Ricardo De Camps, and Fred McGhee voting in favor and Board Members Bryan King, Melissa Hawthorne and Alternate Stuart Hampton voting to deny. A 4-3 outcome was not enough to grant the variance, which requires at least 6 votes. Board Member Michael Von Ohlen was absent.


Burchett pointed out that the house was “not a large house by anybody’s standards,” and was architecturally compatible with the neighborhood.


“It’s done a lot of things right, and could be a lot worse,” said Burchett. “I think it’s unreasonable to ask to move it. We’re seeking infill in the city, not sprawl.”


Hampton disagreed, saying that neighborhood plans were put in place for a reason, and while it might be OK for older, grandfathered houses to be out of compliance, bringing in a new, non-compliant house “flies in the face of the whole purpose of neighborhood plans.”


“I’d be very leery of us supporting further variances,” said Hampton.


King said he was torn about whether or not to grant the variance, saying the request wasn’t egregious, and acknowledging that the city is looking for more infill.


“The other side of it is: you didn’t measure it, you didn’t do your due diligence, you chopped a tree without checking, you didn’t move the air conditioner, you haven’t moved the shed,” said King. “We were really clear about that.”


King said that, while he would hate to see the house moved from the lot, he couldn’t trust Weems.


Eventually, Weems was able to explain that, though the board said that the rear shed should be removed from the house when they discussed the case in March, the request was not attached to a variance. No variance passed at that meeting; instead it was postponed to the April meeting.


Weems said that he would be willing to remove a shed attached to the back of the house, and explained that he didn’t understand that he should have done that during the month the case was postponed.


“I will do anything to keep this house here. I will move the AC. I will plant trees. I will put a fence up….I offered a lot of these already,” said Weems. “I don’t know if the homeowners are just trying to fight a bigger battle here, and are using this as some way to do that.”


Community activist Gavino Fernandez spoke against the variances, calling the redo a “test case” saying the setbacks were implemented in the neighborhood for a reason. He likened reasoning it was “only 11 inches” to treating a stop sign like a yield sign.


“You were gracious to give him a one-foot variance when he first came to you. I think that’s the one that should be adhered to,” said Fernandez. “If he does get this variance, it’s going to set a precedent that we may never be able to stop.” (This story has been edited to correct an error.)

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