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Designed to be neighborly, porch fuels animosity

Friday, December 4, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A still-pending variance request may have seemed simple enough at first glance, but on Austin’s East Side, issues of gentrification are never far away. And at the Board of Adjustment, unhappy neighbors are usually on hand as well.

At the board’s most recent meeting, Justin Cofield was seeking a variance that would change his front yard setback from 25 feet to 18 feet in order to accommodate a front porch that was recently built in the setback at his home, which is located at 5412 and 5414 Northdale Drive. He argued that a smaller porch, which would be allowed by city code, would not adequately protect the house and residents from weather or fit the size of the house.

“I come asking for forgiveness,” said Cofield, who said he built the porch without knowing about the setback and was now trying to get it permitted.

Board of Adjustment members voted unanimously to postpone the variance and questioned the reasoning behind the request. Board Member Michael Benaglio was absent for the vote.

“‘Because I wanted one’ is just not a really good reason,” said Board Member Melissa Hawthorne. “It’s not a hardship.”

Although Cofield accepted the opportunity presented by the postponement to explore a better reason for the variance, he nonetheless defended his decision to construct the porch. “We really built the porch because we like to be outside, and we like to interact with our neighbors,” said Cofield. “I feel like it’s a positive thing. I feel like it’s improving my neighborhood and my home.”

It immediately became clear that the feeling was not universally held. Maurice Owens, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past 47 years, spoke against the request and raised several other issues he had with Cofield’s property.

“I hate to bring in race … but it seems like we are being invaded by the Anglo community, (and) when they come in, the code changes,” said Owens. “Why do I have to abide by the codes and he doesn’t?”

In particular, Owens pointed out that Cofield had a camper in his backyard, and he questioned why it was allowed to remain there when other neighbors had been asked to move theirs. He also expressed concern that a smaller dwelling unit in the back was being used as a separate residence.

Cofield explained that he had spoken to the city’s Code Department and the camper was legal, as was the detached unit on the property. He spoke with a code officer after someone called the city about the camper, and he believes that person was Owens. It was during that visit that the problems with the porch were revealed.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen pointed out that the board was only addressing the variance for the porch, not the other issues raised by Owens. However, he quickly said that he was concerned that the camper and small outbuildings on the property were being used as short-term rentals, though he said he would leave that up to city inspectors.

Cofield stressed that he was not trying to get special rules. “I just want to love where I live,” he said. “I want to do nothing but make this neighborhood a great place, and I will do what I need to do to make it that.”

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