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Carport/garage rules lose traction at commission

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Given a Planning Commission vote and a range of opposition willing to stay late to fight, it seems unlikely that McMansion rules on carports and garages will be changing any time soon.

At their most recent meeting, Planning Commissioners considered an amendment that would change part of Subchaper F, aka the McMansion Ordinance, that eliminates exemptions for carports when they are enclosed. (Enclosing carports, of course, turns them into garages.) Instead, staff is recommending that the exemption be based entirely on where the structure is located in relation to the house, not whether it is a carport or a garage.

Senior Planner Greg Dutton explained that, under the current code, carports get a 450-square-foot exemption when 10 feet or farther from the main house. If closer, the exemption is 250 square feet. However, if exempted carports are subsequently enclosed, that exemption is reduced, and can cause problems for unsuspecting homeowners.

The change was initiated after a perceived flurry of requests for waivers from that rule hit City Hall. Those requests came from homeowners who put doors on what they thought were unfinished garages, only to be told their homes were now out of compliance because those structures were previously considered carports under city code. Dutton said the influx of waivers seems to have died down.

With that in mind, Commissioner Trinity White made a motion to leave the code as-is for the time being and send a “clear directive” to CodeNEXT that this was an issue to be tackled.

“There are lots of things in our code that are complex and involve getting permits that people may or may not know about,” said White. “I’m not sure this is the only one that’s getting abused.”

Commissioners voted to deny staff’s recommendation 9-2, with commissioners Tom Nuckols and Karen McGraw voting against. They will discuss whether the proposed change should be addressed in a public forum in the context of CodeNEXT at a future meeting.

It appears there will be a lot left to discuss. Before taking the vote, there were a number of substitute motions from the commission. Commissioner James Shieh made a substitute motion to remove the distinction between garages and carports that was not seconded.

A substitute motion from McGraw to accept staff’s recommendation and allow existing carports to maintain their exemptions without becoming noncompliant under city code was also not seconded.

And Commissioner Chito Vela made a substitute motion to increase the floor-to-area ratio and get rid of the exemptions entirely, as suggested by David Whitworth, who spoke as a member of the Austin Infill Builders group. That motion was discarded as too broad. The motion, however, seemed to fit with the rest of the discussion on the proposed amendment, which often focused on the merits of the McMansion Ordinance.

As Nuckols put it, “What’s posted is a simple little code amendment, and we are basically rehashing every element of McMansion tonight.”

Representatives from the Zilker neighborhood Neighborhood Association, AURA, Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin, Austin Infill Builders and the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects all spoke against the changes, though not all for the same reason.

Stuart Sampley, who spoke on behalf of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, supported a change in the code. However, he said, the staff-proposed language failed to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem, and he encouraged the city to seize the chance to find a better solution instead and to streamline and clarify all the exemptions in the ordinance, not just the carport exemption.

McGraw, who formerly served on the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, said that she thought the McMansion Ordinance was working well. She noted that the commission, which was formed to deal with waivers from the ordinance, was dissolved last year, in fact, because it was not receiving enough requests for waivers to justify its continued existence.

McGraw noted that much of the testimony throughout the night was about “what a horrible ordinance” McMansion is. Having worked on the original ordinance, she reminded those present that prior to the creation of Subchapter F, there was no limit on floor-to-area ratio and that the ordinance was created to combat the “monster boxes” that were springing up throughout Austin as a result.

“I don’t think the code does not work. I think it does work, and many, many architects are working within this code every day and designing within it. And it’s allowing good, solid large houses to be built,” said McGraw.

Zilker resident David King spoke in favor of the change. He said that he saw the amendment as simplifying the code and hoped it would help homeowners avoid the “trap” that they fall into when they attempt to put a garage door on their carport.

“This is the first time, I think, that I’ve spoken about getting rid of some code,” said King.

Photo by Dr.Ing.S.Wetzel, de:Benutzer: Analemma (Own work (Original text: Eigenfoto)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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