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Tanks tank in Old West Austin variance case

Monday, April 25, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

To find proof that the opinions of neighbors hold sway at the city’s boards and commissions, look no further than the Board of Adjustment. At its recent meeting, board members voted unanimously to deny a variance that may have looked OK on paper but didn’t pass muster once fleshed out by neighborhood concerns.

William Van Sickle, who is with the company Harvested Rain Solutions, represented the homeowner, Tyson Tuttle, in his request for a variance to decrease a rear yard setback from 10 feet to 1.25 feet. That reduction would allow him to construct a rainwater harvesting system at 608 Baylor St., which is in the Old West Austin Historic District.

Chair William Burkhardt said he was inclined to view the variance with goodwill until he saw what the size of the tanks would be and heard the neighborhood objection.

“It’s conceptually fine to talk about rainwater harvesting, but you are putting in something that’s tantamount to a commercial structure, for lack of a better word,” said Burkhardt. “This is a lot of building happening in the setback.”

Van Sickle explained that the idea was to reduce runoff into the alley and adjacent properties. The system, he said, could capture up to 6 inches of rain during a storm. He said that although the tanks would be “quite tall,” they would also be located behind retaining walls fronting the alley behind the nearby Z’Tejas restaurant and Swedish Hill Bakery. The location, he said, avoided large trees and existing parking on the site.

According to Van Sickle, it also filled a need.

“I happened to be out there during the day we had 10 inches of rain last October and observed quite a bit of water running down that hill. We believe anything we can do to get it stopped at the top of the hill will help out the situation at the bottom,” he said.

However, residents at the bottom of the hill appear to see it differently. Van Sickle said that, overall, they had received a positive response to the system but not necessarily to the fact that the tanks would be located in the setback, facing an apartment building. “We believe that the scale and the fencing that we are putting in will minimize the impact over there,” he said.

Neighbor Mandy Dealey spoke in opposition to the variance, reading a letter from Roy Schwitters, who is the president of the Gardens at West Seventh homeowners association. That letter said that although the HOA supports the “principle of rainwater harvesting,” the group did not support the variance because there were other locations on the property that could support the tanks and there are no hardships that warrant a variance.

“The context here is a two-and-a-half-year construction project – a period that provided ample opportunity to resolve all hardships (if any existed) unique to the site, due to the choices made and its design and planning,” Schwitters wrote. “The people responsible started more or less with a blank slate.”

The residents also question the idea that two 20-foot tall, 6,700-gallon cisterns can be adequately screened, especially given that they are uphill from the apartment building.

Tuttle explained that he had been working on the project for about two years and that it had been delayed, somewhat ironically, by rain. “It made us really aware … that it would be good to store some of that water but also to mitigate some of the runoff,” he said. Tuttle said there had been no objection from neighbors until they applied for a variance.

Although board members seemed to embrace the idea of harvesting rainwater, they also struggled with approving a variance that seemed to embrace a preference rather than a need. Several board members pointed out other viable locations for the tanks that would not require a variance.

Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell noted that it would be easy to place the tanks in the front of the property and said, “When there is an obvious solution that doesn’t require a variance, our charge is to deny.”

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