Friday, December 14, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Red-tape mishap causes frustrations at the BoA

For six years, a dock has been jutting out into Lake Austin without technically having the proper permitting to do so in its current form.

Since October, Kathleen Huff of 3117 Westlake Drive has been appearing monthly before the Board of Adjustment to plead her case to keep her ornamental cupola and chimney-like raised skylights on the roof of her boathouse, which currently exceed the height restrictions in the Lake Austin zone.

After arriving at the Board of Adjustment for the first time with no legible plans to indicate the dimensions of the dock, the board postponed the case until November. Last month, Huff returned but did not have any red-stamped plans to prove that her dock was inspected and passed by the city as she claimed. At the Dec. 10 meeting of the board, Huff still did not have the plans nor did she have an ample defense for why the board should grant her the variance to retain the roof adornments on her dock.

“I’m flabbergasted that you don’t know how to make a presentation,” said Chair William Burkhardt as Huff struggled to present any documents or defense to the board.

In her defense, Huff said, “I’m not sure what to say except that it was our understanding that pre-2014 we weren’t required to have the height restrictions.”

According to her previous testimony before the board, Huff noted that the project was commissioned in 2012 when she was “unaware” of separate zoning regulations for the boathouse versus the main house. Although construction was mostly finished by the time the Lake Austin Overlay was instated in 2014, Huff explained that the entire dock needed to be torn down and rebuilt due to substandard craftsmanship the first time around. According to her, the dock was unsafe. Unfortunately, to reconstruct the dock as-is, the board required her to prove that she had the entire structure permitted, inspected and “red-stamped.”

Huff was unable to provide those materials to the board, citing a Catch-22 situation where she needed the board’s approval for the variance before she was allowed a copy of the plans, yet the board required the plans before it would grant the variance. Additionally, she noted that when she spoke to city staff members they assured her that red-stamped plans were not a requirement to gain a variance.

“To come back and tell me that they’re unavailable or you don’t have them, I can’t accept this,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen. “In all my years working in the city of Austin … I’ve never built anything in the city that wasn’t red-stamped.”

Huff admitted that the cupola and the skylights were not on the plans originally. However, she insisted that they had always been on the actual structure, which passed inspection.

“I just feel like there’s a little dance that’s been going on here for three months and I don’t know if it’s intentional or unintentional,” said Board Member Brooke Bailey.

Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell noted that there was an email from city staff in backup saying that corrections could technically be added to a permit after the fact, but the ornamental roof items were not added to the permitted plan.

On the other hand, Board Member Eric Goff expressed “sympathy” for the homeowner and noted that due to the lack of paperwork for the case, “We can’t get to black and white on this one. It seems like this is a red-tape story that went wrong.”

Burkhardt agreed, telling the homeowner, “I feel like you probably acted in good faith.”

The board voted to approve the variance with members Bryan King and James Valadez voting against the motion.

Even with the vote to approve, several of the commissioners were still unconvinced that retaining the cupola was the best solution. “It sounds to me like when you got to the dance the music was already playing,” said Von Ohlen.

Rendering of the boat dock courtesy of the city of Austin.

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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.

Lake Austin: Lake Austin is a water reservoir on the Colorado River, and the source of Austin's drinking water. It was created by the 1939 construction of the Tom Miller Dam and is managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

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