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Environmental Board nixes variance for tram

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though there was some debate, Environmental Board members in the end voted against granting a variance that would have allowed building a tram along Lake Austin.

The board had already rejected a request at its previous meeting for a variance from the homeowners at 3961 Westlake Drive that would allow second access to Lake Austin. Both city staff and board members feared that variance could set a precedent that would allow owners along Lake Austin multiple points of access to the lake, which could compound erosion problems as well as other issues. (See Austin Monitor, June 23)

The property owners had recently constructed a walkway to the lake. In addition to the request for a second point of access, the homeowners were seeking a variance to build a tram, which is a funicular-like device that grants mechanical access down the slope to the water. In this case, the owners said the tram would allow their elderly mother to access the water.

Constructing the tram less than 100 feet from rimrock, which is a critical environmental feature, requires an environmental variance.

The board did not grant that variance either, voting 5-1 to deny, with Board Member James Schissler voting in opposition. Board Member Marisa Perales was absent. Though Board Member Robert Deegen initially reasoned that he should vote for the variance because he would support the tram in the absence of another access point, he later reversed that opinion because the variance does not meet the required findings of fact.

Chair Mary Gay Maxwell noted the variance was not necessarily about the tram, saying, “We may be voting about a tram, but our vote is about the distance from the critical environmental feature.”

Homeowner Rod Roberts explained that they had explored “each and every opportunity” to build a mechanized way for his 87-year-old mother and disabled brother-in-law to get from his boat dock to his home.

“Basically, we think it is necessary to complement my existing stationary steps and stairs which we have put in,” said Roberts. “I am here to let you know that there is not a viable alternative. The one that we are presenting to you — that you voted against — only affects 1 square foot of impervious cover. I cannot come up with an additional solution that would affect any less than 1 square foot.”

Roberts said that according to current rules, he could construct a driveway, which he said would affect “1,500 times more land” than the tram, which would be anchored by 12 2-inch-by-2-inch posts.

Board Member Mary Ann Neely asked whether part of the stairway could be ramped to allow better access. Roberts said that might be possible, but would affect more impervious cover than building a tram.

Roberts said they would not touch the rimrock during construction, and explained that the construction would be 15 feet away from and below the rimrock because of the steep 55 degree slope, not the 5 feet requested.

“I think 5 feet is just too close,” said Neely. “And if the requirement is 150 feet, that is just way too close. I can’t support it.”

Recently, the city approved new rules for Lake Austin, including a clarification that trams along the lake can be permitted only 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 before their approval. The case now heads to the Planning Commission.


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