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Misgivings clear the way for an East Austin ADU

Thursday, October 12, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Doubts about CodeNEXT and a belief in the capricious nature of city staff added up to a win for the future of an East Austin accessory dwelling unit at the most recent meeting of the Board of Adjustment.

Jim Wittliff spoke on the behalf of Guillermo Sach Sanchez, who owns the property at 2017 E. 11th St. Sanchez was seeking a variance from the Board of Adjustment to decrease the minimum lot area required to build a second dwelling unit – from 5,750 square feet to 5,588 square feet.

The board approved the variance, with a 45 percent limit on impervious cover and a stipulation that the ADU would not be used as a short-term rental. Board members voted 10-1 to approve the variance, with only Board Member Bryan King voting in opposition.

In order to get any variance from the city, property owners must prove they have a hardship. In this case, Sanchez argued that the hardship was that in 2001, the neighborhood did not elect to allow ADUs on smaller, or “substandard” lots as an infill option. Though the Blackshear/Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association voted to support the project, city staff said the only route to building the secondary dwelling would be to obtain the variance.

“I do not feel the rules are being equitably enforced,” said Wittliff, who claimed that city staff issued permits for other properties, including properties in the neighborhood. When asked why Sanchez’s property wasn’t approved in a similar manner, Wittliff said that “was a really good question.”

“Sometimes it’s ‘because I said so,’” agreed Board Member Michael Von Ohlen, pulling knowledge from his dealing with the city as a contractor.

Chair William Burkhardt pointed out that it was “more than likely” the ADU could be constructed under the new CodeNEXT development rules, “if and when CodeNEXT gets approved.”

This was enough of an opening for a few jokes about the rewrite of the Land Development Code, which, though set to be finalized in April, could be delayed for a number of reasons.

“On the timing of CodeNEXT, you can hold one hand out and one over your backside and see what fills first,” said Von Ohlen. “I’m telling you right now, it’s going to take a long time to get anywhere.”

“Do you know the difference between CodeNEXT and Little Orphan Annie?” joked Wittliff. “Little Orphan Annie actually got adopted.”

Getting back on track, Von Ohlen clarified that he supported city staff, but said that in this case, he would “stick his neck out” to declare that staff should have granted an administrative approval.

Though he had to be persuaded to accept the particular hardship in this case, Board Member Rahm McDaniel had no trouble coming out against the reason for the variance in general.

“I’m very sympathetic,” he said. “I’ve said from this dais that I think the standard lot size is stupid and promotes segregation. I continue to believe that. However, we are where we are and I wish the Council would change it. I hope they change it. I think CodeNEXT should change it.”

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

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