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BoA bounces Hyde Park B&B case back to Planning Commission

Monday, May 5, 2014 by Heydn Ericson

The owners of the Adams House Bed-and-Breakfast might be feeling a bit like a pinball, being bounced back and forth between two city boards, neither of which appears to want to deal with their issue. The innkeepers, already dealing with a procedural error by city staff, are looking for someone who will allow them to finish an addition on their historic Hyde Park home.


The Board of Adjustment voted Wednesday to postpone a variance hearing for the B&B to May 14, hoping to send it back to the Planning Commission, which has already denied them a new permit..


Owners of the Adams House were granted a building permit in September 2013 for an addition they intended to use as Innkeeper living space. Two months after starting construction – following demolition and the beginning of framing – a complaint was filed by a neighbor. The city then suspended the building permit. (See Austin Monitor, March 13, 2014.)


The owners, Liz Lock, Sidney Lock and Eric Hughes, took their case to the Planning Commission in March, complaining that they should not pay for a mistake made by city staff, but were rejected. Their next stop was the Board of Adjustment last week.


Several BoA members said the issue is something for the Planning Commission to decide at its next meeting May 13. If the Planning Commission fails to come to a decision, the BoA will hear the case once again the following evening.


In the Planning Commission’s previous vote against the case, members cited concern over granting an individual zoning change in a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, or NCCD, saying it would set an undesirable precedent.


Planning Commissioners said they believe the Board of Adjustment was a more appropriate venue due to the case’s unique set of circumstances.


“My concern is that the board should not be granting variances that could be solved with a zoning change and it seems like the Planning Commission has tossed the wet baby to us and I feel like the wet baby needs to be tossed back to them,” said Board Member Brian King.


“I feel like the (Planning Commission) has the ability to rule on this in a manner that it should properly be ruled on,” echoed Board Member Michael von Ohlen. “I would like to see it go through that process first. “


Board Vice Chair Melissa Hawthorne then questioned if the applicants demonstrated sufficient hardship to win the variance request.


“This case is basically built on staff error,” she said. “The attributes of the lot, the historic structure and the fact that it already exceeded the FAR (floor-to-area ratio) requirements – those things might sway me more than staff error on a hardship or a variance.”


“I’m not going to support (this variance request) by hanging a noose around staff’s neck,” von Ohlen said. “Human error is going to happen.”


City staff offered further insight during the meeting into the causes of the permitting error.


Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey said that the first mistake was that his department erroneously granted site plan exemption without a formal review. “(Had it) gone through a formal review . . .  you would have probably had more scrutiny,” said Guernsey, adding that it would have included notifying neighbors.


Chris Johnson, manager of the Development Assistance Center, said that the city was also confused about which regulations applied.


While the plot in question was zoned SF-3 (which does not have a FAR limit), Bed and Breakfasts fall under Subchapter F, or the McMansion Ordinance, which does impose a FAR limit.


Because of the commercial nature of the Adams House B&B, its permit application was passed to a commercial review staffer, who rarely deals with Subchapter F, Johnson explained. It was approved without anyone realizing FAR would be an issue.


When asked by Hawthorne about any hardships not based on city staff error, Mike McHone, agent for the applicants, replied, “It’s an existing historic building, it did go through historic review – another public hearing, another public process – and was granted a Certificate of Appropriateness to make the changes (granted in the permit).”


Several board members pointed out there was an alternative path for the applicants, by requesting a zoning change using the Hyde Park NCCD.


Former Hyde Park Neighborhood Association President Larry Gilg doubted this would be successful. “The merits of this case won’t even be heard, I’m afraid,” he said. “I think (it’s) going to be very difficult to amend.”


More than 30 community members showed up in support of the applicants. At several points during the meeting, the audience was asked to refrain from provocative comments.

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