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Planning Commission takes a turn at tackling Lake Austin zoning

Thursday, April 3, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

It was the Planning Commission’s turn to tackle new Lake Austin regulations last week, and they had questions.


The proposed changes are the result of a nearly two-year process of looking at Lake Austin, proposing changes to the code that deals with zoning as well as regulations that detail Boat Dock and Shoreline Regulations.


“Lake Austin shoreline development, including zoning, takes up an inordinate amount of my time and staff time for the amount of cases that we see. We have a team of staff members from multiple departments that meet once a week just to deal with Lake Austin development issues. It’s the only area of the city that has a team of staff to work on it… The code is unclear, it’s inefficient, it hasn’t been updated in 30 years,” said Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak. “That’s really what is driving this, and I think that we are making things better.”


“The water in Lake Austin is some of the highest quality water in our area… We are seeing a downward trend, though,” said Lesniak.


One of the resolutions would create a Lake Austin District Zoning Overlay, which would extend the environmental protections of Lake Austin zoning to properties in the overlay. As currently proposed, the overlay would apply to properties within 1000 feet of the lake that are zoned LA, Interim-LA, Development Reserve (DR), Rural Residential (RR) and Interim-RR. This would impact about 2,200 of the 6,000 parcels that are within 1,000 feet of the lake, and would apply to the properties regardless of what they were zoned to in the future.


Planning and Development Review’s Greg Dutton explained that the overlay will cover about 70 percent of the lake’s frontage. He said that 12 percent of the waterfront was either zoned Public or had met a higher standard through Planned Unit Development zoning already, leaving about 18 percent of the waterfront of mostly single-family zoning that wouldn’t be covered by the overlay. In terms of the total area covered by the overlay, about 15 percent won’t be covered under the current proposition.


Dutton explained that they opted to leave out single-family zoned properties, as they are mostly small lots that had already gone through a public process to get their zoning. (As they were previously zoned Lake Austin.)


“I am concerned about the 40 percent or so that has other zoning,” said former Lake Austin Task Force Co-chair Carol Lee, who pointed out that some of those parcels that would not be covered by the overlay were on environmentally-sensitive land. Lee also expressed concern that the figures provided by staff might not be accurate or tell the whole story in an area currently seeing a lot of redevelopment.


“The Lake Austin District Overlay is needed because there’s been so little awareness and enforcement of the environmental protections that were buried deep down within the Lake Austin Zoning Districts,” said Lee. “Lake Austin is the drinking water supply for the entire Austin area. It should have its own water management master plan.”


Lee also asked the commission to strike a recommendation that staff be allowed to approve environmental variances on Lake Austin in some cases.


But agent Bruce Aupperle, who estimated that he helps process about two-thirds of citizens’ boat dock and shoreline modification applications that go through the city, supported that change. He said that he wanted what is now a complicated process to become simplified. Aupperle estimated that the average time to process an application through the city is now about six months.


“God forbid we have to go to Council just to talk about a piece of dock and how it’s built,” said Aupperle. “But that’s a possibility under the current code and ideas that staff is putting together.”


Those recommendations fall under the proposed Lake Austin boat dock and shoreline amendments. Among other things, these changes clarify that trams will not be permitted without a variance, limits the number of docks a homeowner can have, limits and regulates modification and repairs to non-complying docks, grandfathers docks built before 1984, requires an engineer approve dock site plan, limits docks to less than 1,200 square feet in footprint and 30 feet in height and length, limits the number of boats (and jet skis) a dock can store, and limits appurtenances on docks to storage closets, roofs, second floors, marine lockers, non-potable water pumps, electrical connections and lighting.


Commissioner Brian Roark, who served on the LATF, was critical of the recommendations from staff. He said that it wasn’t clear where staff had strayed from task force recommendations.


“Right now, if we did it today, all I can really say is that I would be opposed to anything that was in direct conflict with what the Lake Austin Task Force recommended, but that’s about as specific as I could get,” said Roark.


Lesniak responded, saying, “The bulk of the staff recommendations in the code amendments that you see before you tonight are linked to a task force recommendation,” said Lesniak. “But that’s not always true.


Lesniak pointed out that the task force operated on a consensus basis, and a single member could prevent a recommendation. He said that staff also provided detail on broader recommendations from the task force.


Lesniak assured commissioners that when the changes return for their consideration next week, information about where staff differed from the task force would be provided more clearly. The Planning Commission also asked for more information about potential economic impacts from implementing the new rules.


The two code amendments will be back at the Planning Commission on April 8, and are scheduled for a public hearing at City Council’s April 27 meeting.

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