Wednesday, April 24, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Environmental Commission recommends rimrock stairwell to lake

Shoreline access from the rimrock cliffs of Lake Austin has been a touchy subject in the past. While mechanized access has not been permissible for nearly a decade and property owners are only allowed to install pedestrian access, there are still cases that come before various commissions to rock the boat.

The latest shoreline case to be brought before the Environmental Commission, at its April 17 meeting, was for a home at 2009 Lakeshore Drive. The applicant asked for a variance to construct a boat dock and shoreline access within the 150-foot Critical Environmental Feature buffer for rimrock. Although described as a stairwell, the designs show an elevated construction that spans the rimrock 5 feet above the crest and is suspended down to the shore.

Based on the renderings of the project, Commissioner Mary Ann Neely expressed some hesitancy. “This is just a stairway?” she asked. “This isn’t something going down?”

David Cancialosi, who was representing the applicant on the case, explained, “This is absolutely not a tram. This is a set of stairs.”

He noted that the engineers designed the structure in suspension in order not to damage the rimrock while also making it structurally sound enough to withstand storms and ongoing use. The stairwell appears to be floating, “because that’s the amount of span we need to safely access up and down,” he explained. He acknowledged that no structural integrity testing of the rimrock had been conducted at this point in the process.

Despite adhering to city code that dictates only non-mechanized access is allowed to reach the lake, city Environmental Officer Chris Herrington said, “This was not an easy one for us.” As a result, although staffers recommended the project, they did so with conditions.

In order to build the stairwell, contractors will not have over-land access and will need to construct the stairwell from Lake Austin by barge from preassembled sections that were completed off-site. Additionally, there will be a 5-foot buffer from both the crest and the base of the rimrock and the city will require the property owner to provide additional wetland plantings along the shoreline to reduce erosion and sediment-laden surface runoff from discharging into the lake.

Cancialosi acquiesced to all of the conditions, saying, “Our goal is obviously to construct a safe ingress and egress from the shoreline.”

Neely was unconvinced. “I’m afraid the whole thing is going to collapse,” she said.

Nevertheless, the commission voted 6-1, with Neely dissenting, to recommend the construction of the shoreline access. Commissioners Peggy Maceo, Linda Guerrero and Curtis Smith were absent.

To qualify her “nay” vote, Neely explained, “Part of what we are as the Environmental Commission is to make sure that the beauty of the land is maintained, and to me that (stairwell) doesn’t fit within the beauty we are trying to save.”

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City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

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