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Historic Landmark Commission discovers code interpretation error

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

At its April meeting, the Historic Landmark Commission postponed the case for 1400 Winsted Lane in search of more context for the property. Instead, staff returned with a new reading of the code that could change how the commission does business from now on.

The commission was surprised to learn at its May 20 meeting that the case to determine whether the West Austin property was eligible for historic zoning was removed from the agenda and the property owner was issued a demolition permit without the commission’s recommendation.

“A lawyer for the developer said you were in violation of city code,” Holly Reed, who was representing the West Austin Neighborhood Group as the president, told the commissioners. “We were stunned.”

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained to the commissioners that normally when hearing a case, “the commission has to make a decision within 75 days, but if you initiate we would have to have a recommendation within 14 days.”

Commissioner Blake Tollett pointed out that up until now, the approach has been to initiate the historic zoning process in one meeting and then wait for the subsequent meeting in order to make a final decision on the matter.

In the code it says, “The Historic Landmark Commission shall make a recommendation to the Land Use Commission on a zoning or rezoning application governed by this section not later than the 14th day after the Historic Landmark Commission closes the public hearing on the application.”

In the case of the property at 1400 Winsted Lane, the public hearing was closed on April 22, which would mean that under code, the commission would have had until May 6 to make its final recommendation.

This language has always been in the code, Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron told the Austin Monitor. However, she acknowledged that neither the commission nor the staff had interpreted the language in that manner and have adhered to their convention of taking up the case and reopening the public hearing for a final recommendation after closing the public hearing at a previous meeting. “It is a big change,” she told the Monitor.

Several commissioners expressed surprise at this code provision. Commissioner Kevin Koch told the Monitor, “It took us all by surprise actually.”

Although the demolition permit for 1400 Winsted Lane will stand, Sadowsky told the commissioners that going forward, “We’re correcting our behavior now.” This means after initiating historic zoning proceedings, the public hearing will remain open until the following meeting, at which point the commissioners will decide whether to close the public hearing and make a recommendation, or leave it open and postpone the case for further investigation.

Jorge Ortega, a public information specialist with the Planning and Zoning Department, confirmed to the Monitor that for the time being, this is the correct approach. “We can’t comply with code if we close the public hearing and postpone. I believe the idea is to address this in the land development code rewrite,” he said.

Leaving the public hearing open between meetings means that public comment on a pending case can reach the commissioners at any point. Any communications they receive outside of a public hearing will be posted in the meeting backup.

“You should have been allowed to make a recommendation as to whether this home was historically significant,” said Reed. She called the decision to issue the demolition permit a “tragic loss to our neighborhood.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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