Monday, March 16, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council approves garage over McMansion rules

Despite some concerns that the case was one of many headed its way, City Council approved an appeal Thursday that will allow a Bouldin Creek house to retain a garage instead of forcing the homeowners to revert to the allowed carport they once had.

Gregory Bow and Simmi Metha, who own the house at 905 Columbus Road, were seeking to increase their home’s code-compliant floor-to-area ratio, which exceeded allowable space when they converted their carport into a garage. The couple were appealing a “no action” vote by the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission. A “no action” vote functions as a denial.

Council voted to approve the homeowners’ appeal in a vote of 6-4. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Pio Renteria, Ora Houston and Leslie Pool voted against. Council Member Sheri Gallo was absent for the vote.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said his decision came down to property rights and the opinions of neighbors.

“The letter of the law was to protect the property rights of the adjacent properties,” said Zimmerman. “You don’t want something huge and ugly next to your house, because it could diminish the value of your property. … To me, that’s what McMansion was about.

“I think the rights and the opinions of the adjacent neighbors count for more than the homeowners’ association, zoning committee … I think it counts for more than my vote, frankly,” Zimmerman continued.

Under the McMansion Ordinance, carports receive a 450-square-foot exemption from the gross floor area. The exemption for a garage is 200 square feet. The garage in question is 440 square feet, and when the owners converted it from a carport, the 240 square feet that were suddenly nonexempt tipped the scales, with the total allowed gross floor area of the house now exceeding what the ordinance permitted.

RDCC Chair William Burkhardt explained the difference between the opinions of neighbors and those of city officials.

“Commissioners, and presumably the officials here, are charged with upholding the law,” said Burkhardt. “We have to distance ourselves from emotion in this case and any case, and see if this is appropriate to be given a waiver. In this case, and in cases like this, the point that is important to remember is that the applicants are asking for something that would not be given to any other citizen or any other individual coming to the permit department.”

Bow told Council members that the contractor had misinformed him and his wife about what was allowed. Since then, they have won the support of 52 neighbors, though the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association took no official position. Metha added that their 22 immediate neighbors said they prefer their house with a garage instead of a carport.

Houston said the issue was one of personal responsibility to her, and that part of being a responsible homeowner was abiding by city ordinances and knowing what was allowed under code. She said, “If you don’t know, you should know.”

Though Council Member Ann Kitchen agreed, she said there needed to be greater clarity in the code. Yet she supported the appeal, saying that while she also thought personal responsibility is paramount, “it can be kind of difficult in these kinds of circumstances.”

RDCC member Karen McGraw explained why carports, and not garages, were exempt. The McMansion Ordinance is an attempt to limit the bulk of homes, which is why open carports and garages that are apart from the main house are exempted.

“What has happened in the last year, what we’ve seen is sometimes homes are built where the house is completely maxed out, and then this exempt carport is put on the front, and when the builder leaves the front is sized perfectly for a double-garage door,” said McGraw. “So all of a sudden, this open structure that is exempt from being calculated is enclosed, and it adds bulk to the structure.”

McGraw said that because the commission has seen several cases like this, it was important to deny them. As a solution to the problem, the RDCC has proposed eliminating the carport exemption altogether.

“It’s just not working, and it’s creating a situation of end-runs,” said McGraw.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

McMansion Ordinance (subchapter F): In 2006, Austin implemented the McMansion Ordinance in an attempt to limit the mass of new construction in some areas of the city. The ordinance does so by limiting things like floor-to-area ratio and impervious cover, as well as establishing design standards for larger homes.

Residential Design and Compatibility Commission: The city’s Residential Design and Compatibility Commission is tasked with making determinations on modification requests to certain building and structure design standards.

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