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Flood plain variance a conundrum for Council

Friday, March 8, 2019 by Jo Clifton

After hearing from the city’s flood plain expert, Council voted 6-5 Thursday to grant a variance to allow a property owner to replace an older, smaller home in the flood plain of Waller Creek at 4515 Avenue D with a larger home that would sit above the flood plain.

Kevin Shunk, Austin’s flood plain administrator, explained that the owner wants to replace the existing 912-square-foot building, which was built in 1935, with a single-family house of 3,253 square feet and an 87-square-foot covered patio. The current building is 1.7 feet below the 100-year flood plain and 2.4 feet below the 500-year flood plain.

The developer wants to replace the existing home and raise the new building so it is three feet above the 100-year flood plain and 2.3 feet above the 500-year flood plain, which is safer than the current residence.

The problem, however, is that in case of flooding a family living in the house might still have a hard time getting out. The depth of water at the curb in front of the property will be 2.9 feet during a 100-year flood event and first responders would not have safe access to the house.

Voting in favor of the variance were Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan and Paige Ellis. Voting against the variance were Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Alison Alter, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo.

Adler said if someone was sleeping in the house and a flood occurred, he would rather have them sleeping three feet above floodwaters than below. “The best thing would be to not have a house there, but we do have a house there and we can’t say no one can live in that house.”

Garza expressed particular concern for first responders who might be called to rescue anyone living in the house during a flooding event.

Though he recommended that Council approve the variance because the new residence will be safer than the old one, Shunk confessed that he was “still a little nervous” because of projected street flooding.

On Dec. 15, 2016, Council denied a flood plain variance request for the same property after city staff recommended denial. One of the things that has changed since then is release of a nationwide study of rainfall and flood plains called Atlas 14.

“Atlas 14 is telling us that more severe rainstorms are more likely to occur in Austin than we previously thought,” Shunk said.

Because of that new information, city staff started the process of rewriting flood plain regulations last summer. As Shunk explained, part of the rewrite includes changes to variance regulations, with staff proposing a redevelopment exception for properties within the 25-year and 100-year flood plains when the redeveloped property would be safer than the existing property. The house on Avenue D is an example of a property that would be safer if redeveloped to take the house out of the flood plain, he said.

Under the proposed variance, staff would be able to approve the project rather than asking Council to address the issue, he said. However, the city is still operating under the old regulations and Council must approve the variance. Council approved the variance on first reading only so it must come back for second and third readings.

Shunk said the Watershed Protection Department released a draft ordinance in mid-December and is currently meeting with stakeholders to get their opinions. He said they would take those opinions and do a second draft of the ordinance, present it to various boards and commissions and then bring it to Council. He said that stakeholder process would take several more months, perhaps until midsummer. The ordinance might make it to Council next fall.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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