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When is a carport a garage? Ask the BOA

Monday, January 26, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

At its last meeting, the Board of Adjustment considered whether staff had made an error by issuing a building permit at 904 Jessie St.

David King, on behalf of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, made the appeal. In the end it all came down to carports and ongoing problems with the McMansion Ordinance carport exemption in the city.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said that the city needs to reconsider the carport issue in general.

“I know Austin is weird, and that’s the moniker people want to put on it, but putting garage doors on the front of a carport … to me that is not a carport,” said Von Ohlen. “I think there should be a carport exemption, and I think it should be cleaned up to state what a carport is — not a pseudo-garage.”

His fellow board members agreed with him on that point. They also voted unanimously to support the ruling that, if there are two buildings on one plane, the garage must be separated — not attached via a covered walkway, as is the case at 904 Jessie St. The board said that with a garage door on the carport, there must be a 20-foot separation between the carport and the main building.

On another point, which questioned what constitutes the “side” of a carport, board members voted unanimously to uphold the staff interpretation.

BOA members also voted unanimously to establish that measurements be taken to the outside finished surface. A staff memo agreed with this, and 904 Jessie St. building contractor Craig Parker conceded that point, saying the difference was “minimal.”

At the Jessie Street residence, there is a carport with an immediately adjacent covered porch. Daniel Word, who works for the Planning and Development Review Department, explained that there was some question about how far the porch should be from the carport in order to ensure that it was not impeding the required openness of the carport.

Zilker Neighborhood Association Zoning Committee member Lorraine Atherton argued that the homeowners were entitled only to a 200-square-foot exemption for the attached parking area, not the 450-square-foot exemption given. Without the exemption, the house exceeds the allowed floor-to-area ratio, but Atherton said that removing the garage door would rectify the problem.

“The purpose of parking area exemptions is to encourage detached parking areas behind the house and to discourage honking big garage doors across the front of the house,” said Atherton.

Atherton said that the carport in question did not qualify as detached — a covered porch connected it instead of it being separated by 10 feet of space, as the code requires. Moreover, she explained, the neighborhood association did not believe the carport exemption was intended to allow garage doors on carports.

Von Ohlen said he had no problem with the carport’s connection to the walkway. Chair Jeff Jack disagreed, saying the walkway added to the mass of the building.

Board Member Sallie Burchett pointed out that, from the front elevation, there was no way to know that it was a carport.

Parker said that the city created the McMansion Ordinance to reduce the mass and scale of homes, and in his opinion, a detached garage increased the mass and scale of the property more significantly than an attached garage. He also said that the mass of the carport remained the same regardless of whether there was a garage door on the front of the carport.

Neighbor Tom Firnhaber supported Parker. He said that he appreciated the value that other homes that Parker had built in the neighborhood, and said they had added value to his own home.

Harry Savio, who is the vice president of public policy for the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin, also spoke in favor of upholding staff’s interpretation. He said that his organization had always had concerns with the McMansion Ordinance, which he said was “almost impossible to apply correctly in the field.” Given that, Savio argued against the revocation of the building permit, which he feared would set a “chilling” precedent for Austin property owners.

During its December meeting, the Residential Design Compatibility Commission voted to recommend elimination of the carport exemption in the McMansion Ordinance.


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