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Planning Commission allows beleaguered B&B to finish construction

Thursday, May 22, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

After months of limbo, the Adams Park Bed and Breakfast is finally on the verge of some relief from a months-long process of staff error and commission meetings that has left them stranded.

 

Owners Liz and Sidney Lock returned to the Planning Commission last week for a second time, after a trip to the Board of Adjustment proved pointless (See Austin Monitor, May 5) Board members redirected the case back to the Planning Commission, with the explanation that staff error did not constitute a hardship under their bylaws. Though wary of the precedent that rezoning to fix staff error could set, the circumstances of this case and overwhelming neighborhood support ultimately won over the vast majority of commissioners.

 

“With respect to the punting back and forth between the boards and commissions, that concerns me the most, in terms of what people have to go through in order to do the right thing,” said Commissioner Stephen Oliver. “If the Board of Adjustment does not consider a mistake a hardship, then it’s really hard for us to tell people to go there.”

 

The Planning Commission voted 7-0-1 to allow the Adams House owners to go forward with their addition, and increase the maximum floor-to-area ratio from 0.4 to 1 to 0.6 to 1. Commissioner Jean Stevens abstained from the vote and Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez was absent.

 

The change will fix a staff error that has left the Adams House owners frustrated for months, while their project has remained half complete. Staff approved a building permit for an innkeeper’s residence in September of last year. Though the project had neighborhood and Historic Landmark Commission support, it was shut down in January of this year after one neighbor complained and the building permit was revoked.

 

Both Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey and staffer Jerry Rusthoven offered apologies to the Locks for mistakes made by his department. He told the commission that staff had been retrained on Bed and Breakfast rules following the case.

 

“This piece of property is subject to a rather complicated set of rules. It’s subject to Historic Zoning, it’s subject to a Historic District Overlay, it’s subject to an NCCD Overlay, it’s subject to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, it’s subject to McMansion, and it’s subject to the Bed and Breakfast rules,” said Rusthoven. “Each one of these layers of rules stack on top of each other. We process thousands of permits a year. Mistakes were made. My apologies.”

 

Though no one spoke against the increased FAR, many neighbors showed up to speak in support of the Adams House, including Austin Independent Business Alliance executive director and neighbor Rebecca Melancon.

 

“This local business has done everything that has been asked of them. They’ve got unprecedented support from neighbors, from the neighborhood association, from the historic commission, from everyone they could possibly seek approval from… They’ve dotted all the i’s, they’ve crossed all the t’s, and they’ve paid an enormous price for trying to do things right here, in the City of Austin,” said Melancon. “I’m not here asking you to move forward. I’m here begging you, at this point, to release this local business from the trauma that they’ve been under.”

 

Commissioner Danette Chimenti said that, while she didn’t like staff bringing forward zoning changes to fix their mistakes, she felt for the owners and saw the neighborhood support as important.

 

“I hope we don’t see more of these cases. I hope other owners don’t have to go through what these folks have had to go through,” said Chimenti, who explained that in the absence of a Board of Adjustment variance, she was prepared to help the owners move forward.

 

Chair Dave Anderson encouraged the commission to start a conversation about the process so that more people “don’t get caught in this tug-of-war.”  He told the Locks that the commission was trying to balance long-term policy and avoid fixing mistakes by making permanent changes in zoning.

 

“Frankly, we’ve struggled with that, and you guys have borne the brunt of that. I hope you know our intentions were good,” said Anderson.

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