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Panel rejects tram, but hopes for creative solutions

Monday, September 8, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Environmental Board continued to take a hard line against allowing Lake Austin homeowners more than one path of access to the lake from their ridgetop homes last week.

This time, William and Kathryn Darling were requesting a variance for a tram at their 2908 Scenic Drive home. Their agent, Phil Moncada, explained that the tram would tie into landings at both the top and the bottom of the existing walkway. He said the tram would span the rimrock and not disturb it.

“It is a tram, and there are stairs, but that’s where the similarities end,” said Kathryn Darling, who emphasized that plans called for the tram to tie into the existing dock.

The majority of board members disagreed, understanding the concept of “access” was not just how you got to the dock, but the entire route.

Board members voted to disapprove the variance in a vote of 5-2, with Board Members James Schissler and Brian Smith voting in opposition. City staff did not recommend approval of the variances.

Despite the rejection, Chair Mary Gay Maxwell said she appreciated the Darlings’ efforts to have the plan work out as a single access point and hoped there was a way accommodate their needs.

“I’m hoping that you all will put your thinking caps on and figure out a way,” said Maxwell. “I think there is a way to do it. It may be more costly. It may be more problematic. But I think there is a way to do it.”

“We Americans are just endlessly creative,” Maxwell continued.

If approved, the variance would allow the construction of the tram within the 150-foot buffer that surrounds rimrock, which is considered a critical environmental feature. A second variance would allow construction of a second boat dock access within the Critical Water Quality Zone, which is not allowed under city code.

The board heard, and rejected, a similar request in July.

Moncada explained that William Darling, who is in his 70s, has severe arthritis in his spine and knees and cannot use the existing stairs to access the water. Moncada disagreed with the interpretation that the code does not allow two points of shoreline access but explained that his clients’ request did not create a second means of access, because it tied into the existing boat landing and would not change anything along the shoreline.

“I believe that staff has too much leeway in interpreting the code,” said Moncada. “We’re just asking for a safe way for my clients to get down there.”

Moncada further explained that placing the tram on the existing stairway wasn’t an option, because it couldn’t support the weight. He said his clients didn’t want to remove the stairs entirely, because a power outage could strand them. He also believed that removing the staircase could do more damage than leaving it place.

Board Member James Schissler said he didn’t see any evidence that the tram would harm the environment.

“Lake Austin is a recreational lake. It’s not a pristine Grand Canyon. People who live on the lake should have the right to be able to access the lake,” said Schissler.

Board Member Robert Deegan disagreed.

“I understand the desire to have two means of access here, and I see that you’ve worked very hard to provide a very environmentally sensitive means of access to the shoreline. I appreciate that effort,” said Deegan. “The issue that we face is that as soon as we permit two means of access … it sets a precedent.”

Deegan said he wasn’t sure if it were possible to combine a stairway and a tram, but he agreed with the code interpretation that “necessary access” to the shoreline consists of the first access.

“Our primary goal here is to protect the critical environmental features and the buffers along the shoreline by limiting the number of access points there,” said Deegan. “Not just on your lot, but on the lake, going forward.”

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