Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

BoA backs city in ‘structural trellis’ case

A bid to change the way the city allows homes to be attached to each other fell short at the Board of Adjustment’s most recent meeting, despite widespread skepticism toward the central idea that an arbor is a “structural element.”

The South Lamar Neighborhood Association asked the board to weigh in on a staff interpretation of a section of code that “requires connection of two single family attached dwelling units by either a common or abutting wall or by a carport, garage, or other structural element.” Specifically, the association questioned whether the building permit for 3206 and 3208 Aldwyche Drive was issued in error, given the fact that the “structural element” connecting the two buildings was a trellis.

Though there seemed to be a consensus that a loophole was being exploited in this case, there was a divide between board members who thought it would best be addressed through a code amendment and those who supported a change in interpreting the existing code.

In the end, board members voted to deny the appeal, which only required three votes. To uphold the appeal and change the way the city interprets the code, a supermajority of the board was required. The board voted 3-8 to deny the appeal, with board members Rahm McDaniel, Eric Goff and Melissa Neslund voting in favor. Board Member Bryan King was recused.

Board Member Brooke Bailey worried that the current plan allowed the lot to be developed in a way that skirted small-lot amnesty rules and that a developer would build two bigger homes than would normally be allowed.

“You would not be allowed to build a single-family home on a lot this small,” said Bailey, who also questioned how the arbor qualified as structural and integral to the building “as opposed to being a bolted-on ladder.”

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen called the arbor “scabbed on.” He added that, according to city code, the arbor needed to be twice as wide as it is long, which wasn’t shown in the drawings, either. However, PSW Real Estate Director of Architecture Michael Padavic said that the arbor did meet that criteria.

Von Ohlen called that claim “laughable in the face of reason,” saying the dimensions referred to the width between the buildings – not just the dimensions of the trellis on its own, which he said was a building industry standard.

“All I can go on is what’s written in the code, the memos the city has been using and 14 years of precedence,” said Padavic. “That’s what we’ve done.”

Goff explained that he voted to deny the appeal because the interpretation had been used since 2002 by staff and developers and suggested the way to revise that interpretation was through changing the code.

He was backed by McDaniel, who agreed that while there were certainly issues with the arbor, it seemed to meet the criteria for a “structure” under city code. “I don’t dispute that this creates a loophole. I think it actually does – I think our code has a lot of loopholes that we see on a regular basis,” he added.

On the opposing side, Board Member Melissa Hawthorne disagreed, saying the code required a “structural element” such as a carport or garage but not a structure. Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell noted that the code did offer some clues by giving examples of walls, carports or garages, which he said the arbor did not resemble.

“I think the intent was that it be something substantive instead of superficial or decorative,” said Leighton-Burwell.

Because the appeal was denied, the project will now move forward. Any code amendment to address the issue will go through a separate public process.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Board of Adjustment: The city's Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that decides on variances, special exceptions and can issue interpretations of code.

South Lamar Neighborhood Association: Founded in January 2001, SLNA represents the area bounded by Oltorf on the north, the Missouri-Pacific Railroad on the east, Ben White Boulevard on the south, and South Lamar and Manchaca Roads on the west.

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