Tuesday, May 20, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Planning Commission nixes request for more impervious cover

Despite claims of staff error, the Planning Commission was unsympathetic to an East Austin homeowner in search of a zoning fix last week.


Blake and Toria English, the owners of 1307 Waller Street, were seeking a change from SF-3 zoning to SF-4a zoning. The change would allow for more impervious cover on the lot, bringing recent construction permitted by the city into compliance.


The Planning Commission voted 7-0-1 against the zoning change, with Commissioner Brian Roark abstaining and Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez absent.


“I think what everyone wants to avoid is setting a precedent where people ask for things that are clearly inappropriate or, at least, with some research would be readily-identifiable, hoping that they get it by mistake and end up here,”  said Roark. “My sense is, at least in this particular case…that vibe is present.”


Though Blake and Toria English were not present, their agent, McLean & Howard attorney Jeff Howard spoke on their behalf. Howard said that staff errors on permits led his clients to believe that they were allowed to build up to 65 percent impervious cover on their land, instead of the actually-allowed 45 percent. Currently, development on the land is at 61.8 percent cover.


The house at is one of four houses built as part of a 2006 re-subdivision. All four houses were built under Urban Home regulations which were adopted under the neighborhood plan. Those regulations limit impervious cover for lots more than 4,000 square feet to 45 percent, while smaller lots are allowed to build up to 65 percent.


Howard called this restriction an “absurd provision” in the city’s Land Development Code, and argued that the 4,127-foot lot at 1307 Waller Street was being unfairly restricted due to that provision which, he said, “makes no sense from a planning perspective.”


But others argued that the 4,000 square foot limit is intentional, and designed to encourage development on smaller lots. Additionally, one of the project’s developers, Rob Seidenberg, explained that development on all four lots was intentionally limited to 45 percent impervious cover in a deed restriction, following a 2006 drainage study.


“This neighborhood embraced density by adopting the Urban Home tool and I think the city very definitely needs to keep their part and enforce the regulations, rather than undermine the validity of the infill tools,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti.


Chimenti also expressed concern that the homeowners weren’t “trying to do the right thing,” pointing to code compliance issues and neighborhood complaints about the property, as well as their paving of the front yard in order to make more parking.


Neighbor Bill Minor explained that Toria English, who is president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, circulated a confusing letter prior to the board meeting, asking for neighborhood signatures showing support for their decision to rezone her property.


Minor called the situation “awkward” and said he was concerned about the behavior by the Englishes and “their aggressive attempts to secure support for rezoning at the expense of the neighborhood.” He said that, despite Toria English’s knowledge that the board did not support the rezoning, she circulated the letter that claimed the board supported the change.


Minor said that English then asked the neighborhood association to count these letters as “absentee ballots,” a request that was voted down by the association. The neighborhood association also voted against the rezoning.


Paula Reckson, an adjacent neighbor, also spoke in opposition. She said the solution to the staff error and excessive impervious cover wasn’t what was being proposed.


“Unfortunately, what’s good for staff and what is good for the applicants is not what is good for neighbors or the neighborhood. The character of our neighborhood should not be made to bear the brunt of missteps by city employees or individual homeowners,” said Reckson.


“This case is about a series of mistakes that allowed aggressive property owners to pave at will,” said Reckson. “It’s also about opening the city to liability for ignoring the possibility of future drainage problems in permitting this level of impervious cover.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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