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Environmental Board gives nod to Lake Austin tram

Tuesday, April 7, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A homeowner hoping to build a tram to Lake Austin continued his quest through the city’s boards and commissions last week.

Chris Pacitti, who owns the home at 70 Pascal Lane, had more luck at the Environmental Board, which recommended his variance request. The Board of Adjustment denied a different request for the same tram earlier this year.

If City Council approves, the variance would allow Pacitti to build a tram within 150 feet of canyon rimrock, which is a Critical Environmental Feature, or CEF. Board members voted 5-1 to approve the variance with the condition that no tram support is placed in the rimrock or bluff, and that it does not have contact with the CEF within 5 feet of the crest or 1 foot of the toe. Board Member Marisa Perales voted in opposition, and Board Member Mary Ann Neely was absent.

Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle, representing the homeowner, explained that the only way to access the lake from the house was down the cliff, and about one-third of the way down that cliff, there is rimrock.

“We’re just trying to get access to the lake. It’s the only way to get access,” said Suttle.

Building the tram, Suttle said, involves going through both a zoning process at the Board of Adjustment and an environmental process via the Environmental Board.

The Board of Adjustment denied the zoning variance in March. At the time, Board of Adjustment members asked for input from the Environmental Board, and hoped to postpone the case pending that input. However, Suttle explained that he was unsure he would be able to get on the Environmental Board agenda, so the Board of Adjustment denied the variance.

“Big mistake,” said Suttle. “It puts us back in the situation now of reconsideration at their next meeting. Hopefully, we will have a positive recommendation from you guys.”

Chair Mary Gay Maxwell said that the fact the Board of Adjustment asked to hear from her board before making its decision was “kind of interesting.”

“It is interesting,” said Suttle. “It’s actually not part of the findings set out by state law.”

At that point, Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak stepped in. He explained that the Board of Adjustment had asked the Environmental Board to weigh in on Lake Austin variances first in cases that involve an associated environmental variance.

“Even though the zoning issue is not related directly to the environmental issue, they would like to make sure there is not an environmental problem when they take action,” said Lesniak. “I think you will see this more often.”

Bolstering his case for an environmental variance, Suttle produced several pictures and topographical maps that illustrated the “severity of the topo” to show board members why a tram was necessary at 70 Pascal Lane.

Suttle also showed the board pictures of an unobtrusive nearby tram and assured those present that what they had planned would be even less visible. He also explained that, if the homeowner was forced into building a walkway for lake access, construction would “probably do more damage to the rimrock or the bluff, by carving in steps.”

Maxwell and Board Member Marisa Perales expressed concern about a private restrictive covenant that prohibits development below a certain elevation. Suttle assured the board that the director of the Planning and Development Review Department had determined that the city would not enforce it, and that members of the existing homeowners association had agreed not to oppose the project.

“It’s just that it’s a headache for us,” said Maxwell. “And I see more cases coming to us with these tram things because of the steepness and the height of that bluff. It’s really about being put in this kind of position, repeatedly. It’s really not comfortable for us.”

Maxwell appeared to be somewhat mollified by Suttle’s reminder that their vote had no bearing on any future, potential enforcement of the restrictive covenant, should it occur. Perales did not.


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