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Board of Adjustment worries about envelope pushing

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

With the likelihood of a complete pass from the city fading, one South Austin homeowner will be looking for creative solutions for the problems triggered by a garage door this month.

Though some members of the Board of Adjustment appeared reluctant to grant a variance, they did vote unanimously to postpone the variance request at 903 Ethel St. until the January meeting, to allow owner Ginny Catania to come up with a workable solution for her house woes.

The house was built in 2013 with a carport. When Catania enclosed the carport, the house was thrown out of compliance. Though carports are not included in floor area ratio calculations, garages are.

After the request was rejected by City Council in October, the case moved to the Board of Adjustment. David Cancialosi was representing Catania, who was seeking a variance from the McMansion ordinance that would allow increased floor area ratio, which would allow her to keep her garage and its door intact.

Board members spoke to the larger implications of the case, at a time when Austin was seeing more developers build right to the brink of what code allows.

Board Member Bryan King said this was a case of “buyer beware.”

“This house was built new with paver strips. It was maxing it out to the very limit … These give me heartburn,” said King. “I notice several going in in this neighborhood that are doing exactly the same thing. When you push the envelope, you take the chance.”

“I have (houses) in my neighborhood that are so maxed out with paver strips, they couldn’t put a 5-foot-by-5-foot deck on the stoop,” King continued.

Michael Von Ohlen was on the same page as King. He pointed to a trend of builders “maxing out” the floor area ratio of houses and misleading buyers by saying they could add “whatever garage door they want.” In some cases, he said, builders were leaving out sidewalks, porches and stoops, which could not be added later because of impervious cover restrictions.

Von Ohlen suggested that panels on the sides of the garage would allow Catania to retain her garage door for security without violating city code.

Chair Jeff Jack pointed out that the Residential Design Compatibility Commission had also offered an alternative plan, giving the owner “two ways to get it done without a variance.”

Catania purchased the home midway through construction, and installed a garage door after burglaries of the carport.

Brian Bowers, who lives across the street from Catania, spoke in favor of the variance. He explained Catania’s recent history. Shortly after purchasing the house, she was widowed, and her 3-year-old son developed a severe form of epilepsy that requires her constant attention. Bowers told the board that she needed a variance for the garage so that she could have “security, peace of mind, and not have to worry about being broken into.”

The background was acknowledged by the board, but not considered in its decision on the variance.

“I understand and appreciate the owner’s plight. But that is not something the Board of Adjustment can take into consideration,” said Jack. “We need to see what is the hardship on the site for doing this. And if you have solutions … do that.”

Lorraine Atherton told the board that the Zilker Neighborhood Association was opposed to the request for increased floor area ratio “at this address and all of the other addresses that would like to do this in the neighborhood.”

Atherton pointed out that the carport exemption had already allowed an extra 450 square feet. “It’s not unreasonable to expect people to store their personal belongings inside a house of that size,” said Atherton.

She explained that the purpose of the carport exemption was to help make McMansions appear less massive, and said that allowing an increase in floor area ratio would grant a privilege that is not available to other neighborhood properties.

Atherton said the neighborhood association was not requesting that the garage be torn down, just that it remain as the approved carport.

Cancialosi said it was not a case of his client trying to “pull a fast one.” He said that Catania had no idea that a permit was required to install a garage door. Though he said that denial of the request would require the owner to demolish part of the house, widen the parking area and “enter into an unknown situation in terms of the structural integrity of what’s left,” that will be explored further during the month granted by the postponement.


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