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Board rejects request to construct tram at Lake Austin property

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A Lake Austin tram plan stalled at last week’s Environmental Board meeting, where board members worried that their endorsement of the project could set a damaging precedent for the city.

Consultant Bruce Aupperle spoke on behalf of the homeowners at 3961 Westlake Drive, who were seeking a variance to allow construction of a tram – an elevator-like device used to get from a home to a dock – and a variance that would permit access for a second boat dock in a Critical Water Quality Zone. Staff strongly opposed the variances.

“This has been a very long journey,” said Aupperle. He explained that the tram would allow the homeowners’ mother wheelchair access to the boat dock.

Environmental Board members voted 5-1 to deny the variance that would allow a second access to Lake Austin. Board Member James Schissler voted in opposition. The board voted to table the second variance that would allow construction of the tram near the rimrock in a vote of 5-1. Board Member Mary Ann Neely voted against the motion to table.

After the vote, Neely said she wanted a vote on the variance, not on the motion to table. ”I didn’t want to drag it out so they could give us more of their rationale that wasn’t valid, in my opinion.”

The vote will give the owners time to work out an alternative to their proposed plan, but not move forward with their current plan to build a tram in addition to the existing walkway.

“It’s apparent that the tram is a better environmental solution than the driveway. But I think the biggest question that we are being asked to consider is really whether having two access points is appropriate. It’s probably not just a site-specific consideration. It’s a precedent-setting consideration as well,” said Board Member Robert Deegan.

Neely agreed, saying granting the variance for the tram in addition to the walkway would pave the way for allowing construction of trams “in any instance where a person has problems going down the stairs.”

“It could be easily taken advantage of. City Council does not support trams, and neither does the Lake Austin Task Force…I think this does not meet the emergency situation where that would be the only way down,” said Neely.

Sylvia Pope, with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, explained that the case was unique because the property already had water access via a stairway. The variance would allow a secondary access through a tram. Pope explained that the owners could remain compliant with city code by removing the stairs, restoring the vegetation on the slope and then using the tram as their primary access.

Aupperle said that the owner was “not in favor” of the proposal to remove the existing walkway before building the tram.

Aupperle said that in 2010, when the homeowners applied for a site exemption in order to build the tram, the rules about trams were unclear, and indicated that they were caught in limbo while the city made up their mind.

Staff told a different story.

“I’ve been looking at Lake Austin issues now for a couple of years, to the point where I can hardly stand it any more,” said Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak, who explained that the stairs and retaining wall on the property were built in the last few years, illegally, and had to be permitted after the fact. Lesniak said that the city would probably not have approved a variance for the stairs as built if the project had been done legally in the first place.

“To me, this is an especially egregious request,” said Lesniak, who said that he felt the variance didn’t meet any of the required findings of fact. He said that though he did understand the issue of access for those with mobility problems, there were ways to solve that problem.

“I think that if this is that critical, the stairs could be retrofitted and redesigned and redone, rather than expanding the amount of disturbance that is in the Critical (Water Quality Zone.)” said Lesniak.

Recently, the city approved new rules for Lake Austin, including a clarification that trams along the lake can only be granted through a variance process. That variance was considered separately by the Board of Adjustment, which approved the tram. The Environmental Board was asked to weigh in on whether secondary access to the lake would be allowed. Secondary access is prohibited under a different part of the city’s code.

This case is not being considered under the new Lake Austin rules because it was submitted prior to their approval.

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