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Family dispute over historic zoning comes to Planning Commission for mediation

Friday, April 12, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Five years ago, the property at 1119 East 11th St. was zoned historic in an effort to preserve both the legacy of the Thomas family and their involvement in the East Austin music scene, and an emblematic example of 20th-century East Austin bungalow architecture.

Now several members of the Thomas family are asking for the historic zoning to be removed from the property.

City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the Planning Commission at its April 9 meeting that when historic zoning was originally initiated in 2014, all four of the heirs were notified of the process and no one contested the case.

Now, some of the family members felt that the zoning was inappropriately placed on the house because they were not properly notified.

Donna Clark, the agent for the family property, wrote in a letter to the commission that “this is a joint community property and the three other siblings didn’t sign any agreement to put the property in the control of the City.”

Valerie Deyo, a real estate broker who is representing three of the siblings, explained to the commissioners that her clients were unaware of the “financial obligations” that historical zoning entailed. Clark’s letter explains that the historic zoning removes “discretion to allow us to maximize our full potential in future selling of the property or the potential development allowed by the new zoning rights.”

Deyo said that the heirs are paying taxes – albeit reduced taxes – for a home none of them will inhabit, and that some of the family finds this to be a financial burden. “They’re paying money for property they can’t live in,” she said. According to her, the family also worries that the deteriorated state of the home could cause an accident for which they will be liable. As such, several of the family members are interested in selling the home.

According to Deyo, the historic zoning on the property has made it difficult to sell. She argued that the structural issues would make it a more capital-intensive undertaking to restore the home rather than to demolish it and build a new structure.

“We’ve had six people walk away,” she said, citing foundation, water, plumbing and mold issues and lack of on-site parking as reasons that buyers have turned away. The home is listed for sale on the MLS for $1.3 million.

Chair James Shieh noted that while a daunting task, it is not insurmountable. In fact, he said he was working on a similar restoration project at 2205 E. Cesar Chavez St. where a little bit of creativity allowed his team to comply with zoning and create a modern, usable space.

“The potential is there for this property to be something wonderful,” he said of the 11th Street home.

Regardless of whether the Planning Commission found merit in the request to reopen the case and remove historic zoning, Commissioner Fayez Kazi said, “I just don’t think it’s the Planning Commission’s role to initiate this.”

The other commissioners agreed, saying that it is not the role of the commission to mediate family disputes. “It sounds like a civil matter that needs to be sorted out,” Shieh noted.

Commissioner Conor Kenny acknowledged that it would likely be a different matter if all parties were in agreement and wanted to remove the historic zoning.

Although the commission voted unanimously not to initiate the case to remove historic zoning, Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson said that something does need to be done. “Somebody has to judge the outcome here,” he said. “But not us.”

Commissioners Karen McGraw, Rob Schneider, Patricia Seeger, Richard Mendoza and William Burkhardt were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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