Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Planning Commission OKs changes to garage rules

In a situation similar to the one surrounding the small-lot amnesty tool, Austin’s garage placement standards are currently being used in a way that differs from how they were originally presented to neighborhoods when established nearly a decade ago.

This time, the infill tool in question requires a garage to be farther from a property’s front lot line than the front façade of the principle structure, and it may not exceed 50 percent of the width of the principal structure.

City staff has interpreted the code to mean that a garage can have a width that is 50 percent of the total home structure, which includes the garage and the house.

Senior Planner Greg Dutton explained at the Planning Commission’s meeting last week that the intent was to allow the garage to be 50 percent of the house, or a third of the house and garage combined. That is how it was pitched to neighborhoods, and those that adopted it did so with the understanding that the tool would help create housing that reflected the character of the neighborhood. As a consequence, the city is now considering a change to the code language to make that original intent clear.

The familiarity of the situation didn’t sit well with Commissioner Trinity White.

“I’m having a hard time understanding: Why are we here? Where is the disconnect?” said White. “Is it just because our code is ridiculous? Is it lack of communication between the departments?”

Dutton said the question was “a big topic” that most likely boiled down to “a communication thing” that was hard to pinpoint, other than the fact that there were many departments and people involved in crafting the city’s code. He remained hopeful that upcoming revisions to the Land Development Code currently underway through the CodeNEXT process will reduce these kinds of problems.

Daniel Word, who works in residential review for the city, explained that the item was intended to clean up the code and comply with what he called “truth in advertising.”

“When these things are marched through the neighborhood planning process, the neighborhood is shown one thing. But when you go to the actual code language, which is what I have to adhere to, you come to a different conclusion,” said Word. “I think this code amendment is an attempt to rectify that gap between the two.

“I don’t have a good feel for whether this has ratcheted up in frequency compared to how it operated years ago,” continued Word, who said there had been a “case or two” that brought attention to the issue, leading to the proposed amendments.

There was a lot of back and forth about whether the change should be part of the CodeNEXT process or whether it should be examined further before being passed along to City Council. But, in the end, the majority of commissioners voted to amend the code now and save the more nuanced discussion for another, separate conversation.

Chair Stephen Oliver said that he wanted to work on the “trust issue” that exists between the city and neighborhoods. “At the same time,” said Oliver, “I don’t want us to approve language that makes unworkable lots in Austin.”

Specifically, Oliver expressed concern that commissioners could be passing something that would make it more difficult to create “common development” in a more affordable way. “I want us to be very careful, as we repair trust, that we don’t break something else,” said Oliver.

Commissioner Angela Pineyro De Hoyos focused on the original miscommunication in her comments.

“I think it’s important to respect the intent of what was put in place to uphold the transparency and accountability of the neighborhood planning process,” said De Hoyos, who noted that even if the restrictions make things a little more complicated for developers, that might be part of the “fun and challenge of design.”

“It might be an inconvenience, but you should respect what the neighborhoods selected for their infill tools,” said De Hoyos. “I don’t think it’s a constitutional right to have a two-car garage, which is what I kind of feel this is addressing.”

Only two people spoke in favor of the change during public comment. Don Leighton-Burwell spoke on behalf of the Brentwood Neighborhood Planning Contact Team. He said that most of the development in his neighborhood had honored the original intent – with garages comprising one-third of the width instead of one-half.

However, Leighton-Burwell continued, recently that had begun to change. He, too, advocated for the change on the basis that it would help restore trust with neighborhoods that had unwittingly adopted the tool and now found themselves facing “1970s or 1980s periphery-of-Austin” homes, when they had intended to use the tool to keep the character of their neighborhoods intact.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said her neighborhood had the infill tool but that it had been used as originally intended. “I can tell you that it hasn’t hindered development in the West University area,” said Zaragoza. “I know that it’s being abused in some parts of town. It isn’t being abused in my neighborhood, but I can tell you that every single lot is developed to the max.”

A proposal to table the item and send it back to the codes and ordinances committee for more discussion led to a split vote, which was not enough for approval.

Commissioners did vote to approve the changes in the end, but they recommended not adding more uses to the tool and added clarifying language that further defined the front of structures on flag lots. That passed in a vote of 9-3, with Commissioners Fayez Kazi, Jeffrey Thompson and Michael Wilson voting in opposition. The issue will likely be on the April 14 Council agenda.

Photo by Andreas -horn- HornigOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87714

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City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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