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Flag lots could be making a comeback

Monday, July 31, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

There’s more to CodeNEXT than zoning, believe it or not, and last week the land use commissions received an update from staff on non-zoning changes that would be part of the rewrite’s second draft, with the hottest item of discussion being the loosening of flag lot regulations.

The subdivision tool, intended to facilitate infill and minimize sprawl, got its name from its unusual shape, where a narrow strip of land connects the street to the more typical rectangle of a regular parcel. Senior planner Steve Hopkins explained that at the moment, developers could create flag lots from unplatted land by right, but with platted land developers have to go through the resubdivision process and obtain a variance, adding time to an already lengthy permitting process. In terms of application fees, he said that in all it costs about $4,000.

“What (staff) is proposing is that we have the same rules for both kinds of land,” Hopkins said at the meeting, also mentioning that a variance request for a flag lot hasn’t been denied since 2012.

During his presentation, Hopkins did brush over the controversy that flag lots had stirred up when City Council passed an ordinance in 2012 to tighten the regulations around them. At the time, former Council Member Laura Morrison said that the extra permitting was necessary to ensure compatibility could be maintained in the neighborhoods. The measure was largely a response to an influx of flag lots in the Allandale neighborhood, where the city’s approval of the lots on an individual basis had not considered the cumulative effect that these lots could have in proximity to each other.

Planning Commissioner Patricia Seeger, who at the time of the ordinance’s approval was a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, recalled that the width requirements of the flag lot had not been consistent before regulations were put in place.

“Are you saying that those requirements will be automatically upheld? Because they weren’t (several) years ago. That’s what concerns me,” Seeger said.

With the ordinance, applicants have to meet emergency response, utility and environmental standards, but the proposals also have to be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. “That’s the portion that’s been giving staff a little bit of concern, because that can be anything,” Hopkins said, although no variance has been denied because of that provision.

Despite staff’s concerns that the compatibility standards could undermine the effectiveness of the tool, Planning Commissioner Karen McGraw reiterated its importance. She pointed to a recent project approved by the commission, Easton Park, which will be composed entirely of flag lots. “This is going to be tiny lot, tiny lot, driveway, driveway, tiny lot, tiny lot,” she said.

McGraw speculated that this oversight of compatibility will result in numerous complications, from trash pickup to parking. “Where do visitors park in this (project)?” she asked. “Do they drive up the flagpole?”

On the other hand, flag lots enable developers to get more units out of a bigger parcel than they would otherwise be able to. Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson, who is also the director of operations for Austin’s Habitat for Humanity, said in one case his organization was able to split a larger property into four flag lots, which allowed them to build four homes instead of one.

Planning Chair Stephen Oliver wrapped up the discussion by making a call for each city department involved in drafting CodeNEXT to make sure they’re communicating with each other as the process moves forward. “We’re going to want to see some assurances that each of the departments have really reached across (and) that these elements really do work together,” he said.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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