Friday, May 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

BoA postpones case to better understand 10-foot setback implications

After combining two plots of land in the West Austin Sweetbrush neighborhood in January and agreeing to conform to city of Austin ordinances in the process, the owners of 2404 Sweetbrush Drive came before the Board of Adjustment on May 13 to request a variance to decrease the rear yard setback of the through lot from the required 25 feet to 10 feet.

Jeffrey Howard, an attorney with McLean & Howard who was representing the applicant, told the board that the variance request came about on such short notice because “they had no reason to believe that (replatting the two lots) was going to trigger a 25-foot setback.” According to Howard, the original neighborhood plat from 1955 was tied to a restrictive covenant that specified the two lots in question were permitted to have a 10-foot setback from Matthews Drive on the west side of the property.

Currently, Howard said, four houses that back up to Matthews Drive – the street the through lot backs up to – have setbacks of under 25 feet.

Matthews Drive, according to Howard, is a “narrow” and “substandard” road that looks more like an alley with cattle guards traversing it in several places. Board Member Eric Goff called this distinction “one of the key points” in favor of the variance request.

Howard also pointed out that a 10-foot setback was necessary for this property since the slope of the land causes water to pool and become a drainage bowl that limits the constructible area, as evidenced by the previous home on the property that suffered large amounts of water damage due to its poor placement on one of the lots. Large heritage trees further limit the space available to build on.

The West Austin Neighborhood Group and 13 out of 14 neighbors within 300 feet of the property offered their support for the variance, citing the drainage issues on the property. Neighbors also mentioned that there were disputes in 1958 over whether Matthews Drive was actually a public road.

Chair William Burkhardt, however, noted that with two lots and a demolished house, that leaves three-quarters of an acre on which to situate the structure and still respect current code setback requirements. He explained that this variance request was not a hardship but an aesthetic choice. “I know you’re trying to make this house fit on one end to have a nice area to recreate on,” he said.

“You’re trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen. “There’s no way. There’s no hardship. There’s nothing on that lot.” Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell expressed similar sentiments, saying, “To me it just doesn’t fly. There are clearly solutions.”

Board Member Melissa Hawthorne, however, thought that the 1955 restrictive covenant was a simple solution. “I thought it was pretty straightforward,” she said.

She and other Board members were curious to see setback averages for the properties along Matthews Drive as well as elevation maps showing how much the home would need to be raised in order to avoid damage from the constant water drainage on the property. Burkhardt expressed concern that an elevated house could appear to be more of a wall abutting the drive, which would block the sightlines along the property.

In order to hear that information, the board voted 6-5 to postpone the case until July. Board members Burkhardt, Darryl Pruett, Leighton-Burwell, Rahm McDaniel, and Von Ohlen voted against the motion and Board members Kelly Blume and Martha Gonzalez were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Board of Adjustment: The city's Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that decides on variances, special exceptions and can issue interpretations of code.

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