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Do ‘flag lots’ threaten neighborhood character?

Monday, August 20, 2018 by Jack Craver

No neighbors voiced opposition to the plans, but two members of the Planning Commission last Tuesday voiced concern about a developer’s attempt to subdivide three large lots in East Austin to create “flag lots” that would each include two homes.

The properties are at 2106 EM Franklin Ave. and 1191 and 1197 Greenwood Ave.

Developers often seek flag lots when there is enough land on the property for two units but not enough street frontage. They build two or more units, one in front of the other, with a long, narrow strip of land (the “flagpole”) that becomes a driveway that extends from the street to each unit, so that each one has vehicle access to the street.

City staff had recommended the requested variance, saying that it was in line with the neighborhood plan, which was adopted in 2002.

However, Commissioner Tracy Witte worried that the proposed flag lots would be out of character with the surrounding neighborhood – the Oak Springs subdivision of the East MLK Combined Neighborhood Planning Area. There already are four flag lots in the subdivision, she said, but they are on much larger lots: 16,000- to 26,000-square-foot lots, as opposed to the 10,000- to 11,000-square-foot lots under consideration now.

While the neighborhood plan allows for certain infill tools, she said, it also says that houses should be set back from the street “a similar distance as most other houses on the street.”

“Creating a flag lot, where one house is behind the other … it confuses me, I will say that. I’m not certain about whether or not these would be viewed as compatible within that neighborhood plan,” she said.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger also expressed skepticism that the neighborhood envisioned allowing flag lots.

“It’s chopping this neighborhood up,” she said.

Others on the commission were unconvinced.

Commissioner Conor Kenny said that he doubted that what was being proposed would lead to a development pattern that sharply departs from the “lived experience” of those in the neighborhood.

“People that live within 500 feet of these lots were notified,” said Commissioner James Schissler. “I don’t see anybody here. If the neighbors don’t even write or oppose it … it’s not for us to come up and tell people what’s best for the neighborhood in every instance.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson suggested the commission’s decision wouldn’t make much of a difference. The developer could still build a home and an accessory dwelling unit on the lot without a variance, he said, and asked if it really makes a difference if it’s a flag lot.

As he often does in zoning cases, Commissioner Greg Anderson said he wished he could be voting to approve even more housing on the property in question. He pointed out that one of the parcels in question was sold for $55,000 in 2005 and that it now costs over $300,000. Unless the city allows smaller, cheaper homes, including multifamily developments, the neighborhood will only be accessible to the affluent, said Anderson.

“I’m most offended by our current and lousy Land Development Code that allows so few homes here,” he added.

Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart concurred: “I don’t see us as chopping up the lots, I see us right-sizing the lots.”

The commission voted to approve the variances, 9-2, with only Witte and Seeger opposed.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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