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Zoning and Platting says no to wheelchair tram

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Following a lengthy discussion last week about setting precedents, the Zoning and Platting Commission narrowly voted to deny a property owner’s request to build a wheelchair tram from his backyard to Lake Austin.

Applicant Rod Roberts said he requested variances to build the tram — or inclined elevator — on his property at 3961 Westlake Drive in addition to an existing stairway so his elderly mother will be able to access the lake when she moves in with him in the next year.

Vice Chair Patricia Seeger, who made the motion to deny, said that she understands the request but has broader concerns. “The issue is, in all fairness, what limits do we put onto access into the lake?” she said.

With the vote, commissioners concurred with staff’s recommendation and denied the variances from city code that prohibit downslope construction on land within 150 feet of a critical environmental feature buffer as well as construction of more than one shoreline access point in a critical water quality zone.

Commissioner Rahm McDaniel voted in opposition to staff’s recommendation, saying that it is unfair. “I’m concerned that, under staff’s interpretation … a handicapped person could buy a piece of property on Lake Austin and they would have to tear out the footpath in order to build a tram, and I find that fundamentally unacceptable from an environmental perspective,” he said.

“It disturbs the shoreline, it disturbs the river and, potentially, it presents A.D.A. compliance issues,” McDaniel continued, adding that he is not a lawyer and cannot make a judgment based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I’m not terribly concerned about setting a precedent because I don’t think that anybody is going to build an elevator tram who doesn’t need one.”

Commissioner Jackie Goodman, who voted in favor of staff’s recommendations, said approving the request could very well set a precedent. “If it was this commission that was looking at a future proposal, we would have no doubt on what did or did not set a precedent … but others, I don’t believe, will see that,” she said.

The critical environmental feature is canyon rim rock, which the staff report said “will not be disturbed by tram construction, but constitutes a secondary crossing and will cause additional disturbance within the (critical environmental feature) buffer.” The report also noted that shoreline soils along Lake Austin are typically “highly erodible.”

Zoning and Platting initially heard the request at its Nov. 4 meeting, but decided to continue the hearing at a later time after commissioners were unable to pass a motion. They also asked Planning and Development Review Department staff to draft a policy interpretation of the section of code relating to shoreline access in a critical water quality zone.

Staff submitted its interpretation in late November. It states that, in these cases, “the code allows significant flexibility in design choices for shoreline access that fits a variety of needs.” It adds that applicants may choose from various means that include stairs, steps and trams.

The interpretation concluded, “A second route of access (i.e., a separate set of steps) is not strictly necessary” because the applicant can construct one point of access that includes a tram and a stairway in the same environmental footprint.

Roberts told commissioners that when he built the stairway to the lake, he was not aware that properties on Lake Austin are limited to one access point. He added that two of his neighbors have steps and incline elevators providing access to the lake from their properties.

The Environmental Board denied the item over the summer and the Board of Adjustment approved it in April.

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