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Board of Adjustment split over gas station lanes

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Despite the city’s goal of reducing the number of people driving in single passenger vehicles to 50 percent by 2039, 74 percent of Austin residents currently drive to work alone. With so many vehicles on the road, that means gas stations are far from being a relic of the past.

However, Jim Wittliff argued at the April 8 meeting of the Board of Adjustment that the code dictating gas station design is very much out of date.

“We’re proposing six fuel pump islands with one fuel dispenser on each side which will require 12 queue lanes,” he said. He explained that having so many lanes with only one pump on each side is known as a “dive configuration” and is “what I would consider the more modern alignment for fuel dispensers.”

Under current city code, the limit is eight queue lanes and 16 fuel dispensers. Wittliff requested a variance to allow up to 12 lanes but only 12 pumps or 75 percent of the number of allowed fuel dispensers. The request was for two properties: 13414 Harrisglenn Drive and 12401 Tech Ridge Boulevard.

Despite painting the design as a modern approach, Commissioner Eric Goff opined that the applicant’s hardship was that he didn’t like the existing city code. “This case would be true of any new gas station in Austin if this is the new technique, so it seems like we need to update the city code and not have a variance for every new gas station,” Goff said.

While Wittliff acknowledged that “it is true I don’t like the existing city code,” he insisted that was not the hardship, which he explained was the configuration of the lots that did not allow for a maximum of pumps. He said engineering studies showed that on each lot, the developers could situate a maximum of four islands with eight queue lanes for half the number of pumps that the city code would allow.

Commissioner Goff noted that these designs demonstrated that “you can build a gas station there, it’s just smaller than you would like to.”

Wittliff said both sites currently have a site plan under review and that a variance to permit a change in the configuration of gas pumps from what is laid out in the Austin Transportation Criteria Manual to a dive configuration is the last hurdle to proceeding to development.

Commissioner Michael Von Ohlen voiced his support for the variance, saying, “Austin is also a clean air city and when you have this old, outdated system and people are backed up waiting for pumps and they’re idling, that’s going to impact that as well.”

Commissioner Melissa Hawthorne said that the dive configuration presented by Wittliff was not only a modern approach that limits idling at the pumps but improves parking and safety in the area by keeping traffic from backing up into the street as cars queue for a spot at the pump.

Despite the arguments for the human safety and potential air-quality improvements that the plan allowed for, Goff reiterated that fixing an outdated part of the code should require an applicant to apply for a code amendment, not a variance.

With sentiment split evenly down both sides of the dais, Von Ohlen made a motion to approve the variance for 13414 Harrisglenn Drive. The motion failed with commissioners Goff, Darryl Pruett, and Yasmine Smith voting against it and commissioners Rahm McDaniel and Kelly Bloom absent. To avoid another deadlock, the commission voted unanimously to postpone the case associated with 12401 Tech Ridge Blvd. to the May 13 meeting.

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