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Hyde Park flood plain variance finally OK’d

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Even though Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza did not really approve of granting flood plain variances to allow construction of a home at 4515 Avenue D, she changed her vote last week so that the property owner would not have to come back to Council a third time.

When the matter came before Council on March 7, property owner Jay Ahmadi managed to convince six City Council members to vote for the variance that will allow him to replace a 912-square-foot, single-family home built in 1935 with a 3,253-square-foot home and an 87-square-foot covered patio.

At the time, Kevin Shunk, Austin’s flood plain administrator, told Council the new building would be safer for occupants than the current building. However, he said, in case of a 100-year flood, anyone living in the house would have a difficult time leaving. While the house itself would be above the flood plain, the estimated depth of water at the curb would be 2.9 feet.

Ahmadi told Council on Thursday he had worked with flood plain staff for the past two years to come up with the plan that would allow him to build a new home. He also noted that his neighbors at 4518 Avenue D, 4606 Avenue D, 4515 Speedway and 4508 Speedway had recently received flood plain variances under similar circumstances. He said he had support from various Hyde Park organizations, including the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.

The same six Council members who initially voted for the variance did so again on Thursday. That included Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Greg Casar, Paige Ellis, Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper-Madison and Pio Renteria.

But City Attorney Anne Morgan said that with just six votes it would take three readings to finally approve the variance because it is in the form of an ordinance. Garza, who argued against the variance on March 7 because of the possible danger to first responders during a flood, told Adler it was clear to her that no one would change their mind before the third reading and she did not want to force Ahmadi to come back for no good reason.

Those Council members who were convinced to vote for the variance were obviously swayed by staff’s recommendation in favor. Shunk noted that the new house will replace an existing building that is 1.7 feet below the 100-year flood plain and 2.4 feet below the current 500-year flood plain. The new building will be three feet above the 100-year flood plain and 2.3 feet above the current 500-year flood plain, according to staff.

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 the release of Atlas 14, a nationwide study of rainfall and flood plains.

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

Council Member Ann Kitchen told her colleagues that Council needs to reach a policy decision about whether people would be rescued or expected to shelter in place during floods surrounding houses like the one in question.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she would continue to oppose flood plain variances because allowing the new structure to be built would put first responders at risk. Adler replied that the current structure is much more dangerous than the proposed structure, so people would be more at risk in the current structure.

The conversation is expected to continue as Austin confronts questions about how to deal with more flooding in its future.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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