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ZAP postpones project over pipeline concerns

Wednesday, December 23, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Zoning and Platting Commission postponed a decision on a proposed project at its Dec. 15 meeting over concerns relating to a nearby gas pipeline. In the course of the discussion, commissioners suggested that current city regulations do not require a great enough distance between buildings and potentially hazardous pipelines.

The development before the commission is a proposed rezoning of a 1.4-acre property on 7804 Cooper Lane from Single Family-2 (SF-2) with conditional overlay to Single Family-3 (SF-3), which would allow the developer to build four lots of duplexes, for a total of eight units.

In accordance with code, the project – put forth by Kimo Mortgage Realty – would have a 50-foot setback from a gas pipeline that runs through the north end of the property. Commissioner Jackie Goodman said that setback wasn’t good enough, particularly in light of a recently approved ordinance that eased restrictions on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

“Fifty feet is really not, in my mind, adequate,” she said. “Especially if you’ve got SF-3, and now each lot is going to be entitled to have a duplex and an ADU. That’s potentially a lot of people, more than traditional SF-3 developments. So I’m really, really nervous about that.”

Members of city staff declined to answer when asked by Goodman whether they believed 50 feet was enough of a setback, but they pointed out that that distance was the minimum required by ordinance.

“It’s in the ordinance because that’s the best that could be gotten,” replied Goodman, who previously said that local attempts to enact stronger safety regulations had been stymied by federal regulators in the past.

Goodman and Commissioner Ann Denkler were particularly concerned about evacuation plans for the future residents in case of a hazardous leak, which can lead to fire. Wendy Rhoades, the project case manager from the Planning and Zoning Department, said that she had asked whether the development required an evacuation plan but was told that it wasn’t necessary because of the increased building standards required in this instance by city code.

Austin’s land development code regarding pipeline provisions, which has been held up as a model in literature on the subject, imposes a 500-foot setback for certain buildings, such as schools and hospitals, that have sensitive populations who would require evacuation assistance. For other buildings, such as those proposed by Kimo Mortgage Realty, it requires stronger building materials for structures within 200 feet of a pipeline.

But the city’s rules don’t treat pipelines differently based on their size or what they’re carrying, Denkler pointed out. While some of the city’s rules mitigate the risks associated with building near a pipeline by requiring different construction materials or sprinkler systems, she noted that federal guidelines recommend site-specific setbacks based on a number of factors, including whether there are such regulations in place. If there aren’t any regulations, the guidelines recommend a setback distance of between 660 and 1,000 feet.

Denkler said she wasn’t convinced that the pipeline was too close but that she felt uncomfortable approving the project without some expert perspective from the fire marshal. She and Goodman suggested that some of the considerations that require greater setbacks for nursing homes and other locations that house those with limited mobility might be relevant in this case as well, if there are elderly people living in the condos.

The commission “needed to better understand the risks associated with the zoning change,” said Denkler in an email to the Austin Monitor the next day. “Would it be safer to keep the existing zoning, given the proximity to the pipeline, or should we be adding housing stock? That’s why we wanted the fire marshal present to answer some questions.”

Seeing that at least two of the seven commissioners present were reluctant to support the project (six votes are necessary to approve a motion), Michael Rivera, the civil engineer for the project, requested a postponement and told commissioners he would return with more information about the safety implications of the nearby pipeline.

The commission voted unanimously to postpone further discussion on the case until its Jan. 19 meeting and requested that an official from the fire department be available to answer questions about the pipeline.

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