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Water utility relaxes rules for granny flats

Thursday, September 24, 2015 by Jo Clifton

After hearing complaints about new requirements for waterlines, water meters and wastewater lines from contractors, architects and people hoping to build granny flats in their backyards, Austin Water utility Director Greg Meszaros has issued three memos that allow exceptions to the expensive changes previously enacted.

City Council Member Greg Casar, who chairs the Council Neighborhoods and Planning Committee, is working on putting an item on the Council agenda to codify those exceptions in the near future.

During a brief appearance before the committee on Monday, Meszaros said the utility has been rethinking its approach to accessory dwelling units, noting that the utility had previously adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to upgrading service. Service refers to the portion of infrastructure between the mainline in the street and the meter.

The utility has also decided to allow some exceptions to the requirement that a granny flat or accessory dwelling unit must have its own meter, he said.

Meszaros has created an administrative exception to regulations requiring an upgrade of the water service line when the owner of a single-family home wants to add on a bathroom.

The regulations are complicated and will not apply in all cases. However, if there are no more than 4.5 total bathrooms after the remodel or the upgrade of a home, the homeowner will not be required to get a new waterline. A new meter will be required, but the utility “will be responsible for maintenance” and future upgrades when necessary, Meszaros wrote in a memo outlining the changes.

In both of those instances, Austin’s Water Taps office “will evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the sizing of existing infrastructure versus the proposed demand of the single-family home development to determine if the meter and/or a water service line upgrade will be required,” according to Meszaros.

“We think this practice will kind of refine our approach to (accessory dwelling units) and help reduce overall costs,” Meszaros told the committee.

Last December, Council passed a resolution intended to encourage water conservation in developments with two, three or four residences “through cost-effective means,” indicating its support of submetering for such residential developments. But submetering and the other changes turned out to be more costly than expected.

Architect Girard Kinney pronounced himself a “happy guy” this week when discussing changes to the rules. He thanked the utility and Council for making the changes but said they need to be codified since right now they are just part of an internal policy written by Meszaros.

Kinney had complained back in April about the costly changes adopted by the utility. He said then that the utility’s decision to require that new and retrofitted secondary dwellings have an entirely new waterline and an individual meter, as opposed to a submeter, had increased the cost of granny flats by between $10,000 and $25,000. The utility has also stopped doing the work itself, which means contractors must hire their own engineers and workers to dig up the street to install the line.

Casar said, “I believe we’ve had unanimous recommendations from all Planning Commissioners and all stakeholders on this. And I’m glad the water utility has responded to make this simpler.”

Council Member Pio Renteria, who lives in an accessory dwelling unit behind his own house, said, “When we built our secondary unit, we did the same thing. We just have one meter and increased the pipe, and it was very reasonably priced. … It’s worked out really great for me just having to deal with one meter.”

Council Member Sheri Gallo had left the meeting, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she had to leave for another obligation when the item came up. She said she had not had enough time to study the issues to vote on whether to send it to the full Council with a positive recommendation.

Casar was concerned about losing a quorum and said the item was not controversial, so he asked Tovo if she would make a motion to refer the matter to the entire Council without a recommendation. She did, and it passed unanimously.

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