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Steck House case returns to BoA one last time

Monday, March 21, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The development surrounding the Steck House was once again in question at the Board of Adjustment for just under an hour last week.

Although the board voted to reconsider the case, in the end, board members did not change their position from last month. Once again they voted to support staff’s interpretation. However, they did so after several members expressed frustration with the code as it currently is written.

The board voted 5-5 to uphold staff’s interpretation of the code, with board members Eric Goff, James Valadez, Melissa Neslund, Melissa Hawthorne and Rahm McDaniel voting in favor. Board Member Michael Von Ohlen was absent, and alternate Kelly Blume was present.

Neighbor Leon Barish was asking for a reconsideration of his appeal on the basis of two additional pieces of information. He brought forward a case from 2007 in which staff said that compatibility standards would still apply to a historic-zoned property, which led Barish to believe that staff was “acting arbitrary and capricious” in relation to the Steck House case, because the same standard was not applied. In response, the city said that the 2007 decision was an error.

Barish also presented a letter from former City Council Member Smoot Carl-Mitchell – who served when the ordinance governing historic zoning and compatibility was passed – and said that the intent was not to give a historic property development rights as proposed by developers in this case. That opinion is shared by Neighborhood Conservation Combining District author Karen McGraw and former Historic Landmark Commission Chair Laurie Limbacher.

Lynda Courtney, who is with the Development Services Department, stood by staff’s interpretation that compatibility for the property should be waived under current code.

Courtney explained, “Staff is challenged sometimes by code, because what we have to interpret is the actual words that are in code – the actual words that are in zoning. … Historic-zoned properties are exempt from compatibility. It doesn’t say ‘structure’; it does say ‘properties.’”

This assertion was backed up by Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey, who was working for the city in the 1980s when the code amendment in question was adopted. He said he believed that “the code, as written, is clear” and applies to the property, not the house.

Developer Cater Joseph Jones, who has been working on the project at 305 E. 34th St. for the past two years, said that he understood the compatibility setbacks were intentionally waived because “the historic building acts like an obstacle.”

“To assist you with that, they allow relief of the compatibility setbacks so you can work on the site,” said Joseph, who added that his job “has been at a complete standstill” for the four months that this case has been active. He said he would appreciate a resolution.

Board members obliged. Although they continued to express dissatisfaction with the language of the code itself, the majority didn’t find fault with city staff’s reading of it.

Goff said that although there were new pieces of information, he didn’t see how they changed the outcome. In terms of the 2007 case, staff acknowledged it had made a mistake. As for the letter from the former Council member, Goff said he didn’t think it effectively “described legislative intent” because it was not the intent of the entire Council, and, apparently, the relevant meeting minutes are missing.

Goff added that it might be worth discussing whether the city would like the code to say something different than it does, but he stressed, “Right now, that is what it does say.”

Chair William Burkhardt reluctantly agreed.

“I don’t like this a bit,” said Burkhardt. “It’s clear what the intent was. It’s absolutely, absolutely something that should have been looked at in more detail. And yet, I agree with you. The words are the words.”

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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