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Casa de Luz continues fight with city

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Casa de Luz, a vegan restaurant on Toomey Road, has been involved in an ongoing dispute with city building officials over its compliance with requirements of the Fire Code for the past eight years. City Council will be asked to resolve the latest clash at Thursday’s meeting.

At issue is an appeal of a ruling by city staff, upheld by the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals, to suspend Casa de Luz’s certificates of occupancy under what is called a “fire watch.” That determination means the building must hire a qualified person to watch for fire and make sure the occupants are able to exit safely in case of fire.

The restaurant sits at the end of a sidewalk shaded by bamboo. At the end of the sidewalk, observant visitors may notice a bright yellow sign informing them that the building has “dangerous conditions,” which are described as inoperable fire sprinklers and inadequate fire access.

Stuart Harry Hersh, a retired city employee, notes that he has been representing the restaurant as a pro bono consultant for the past six years.

Hersh says that the city wanted Casa de Luz to remove its greenery and enlarge the entrance to the restaurant to provide fire truck access. Alternatively, the restaurant would be allowed to install fire sprinklers.

Although the sprinklers were installed in October 2018, they were installed “without a permit and fire sprinkler shop drawings were submitted to the Austin Fire Department shortly thereafter,” according to written comments from the department.

That was not the usual procedure, and the department notes that staff issued comments requiring corrections in October 2018 and again in April 2019. According to staff, “the corrections to the plans have not been submitted for review as of September 19, 2019.”

In the meantime, the city’s building official issued a notice of intent to suspend the restaurant’s certificate of occupancy “due to the lack of fire apparatus access with 60 days to obtain and finalize the permit for the unpermitted installed fire sprinklers.” On May 2, the department suspended Casa de Luz’s certificate of occupancy and gave the owner a deadline of June 1 to remedy the violation of the lack of fire apparatus access.

Hersh argues that the city refused to issue the building permit for installation of the sprinkler system “for more than five years” because staffers were unable to locate the certificate of occupancy for the building, which was originally issued in 1992. A second certificate of occupancy was issued in 1997, following repairs performed after a fire, according to Hersh.

Hersh says city staff finally agreed on Jan. 4, 2019, that the building did have the certificate of occupancy and at that time accepted his client’s permit application for the sprinkler system. However, the sprinkler system had already been installed.

According to Hersh, the fire department approved the sprinkler plans on April 2, 2019, and exactly one month later, city staff suspended the restaurant’s certificates of occupancy.

Hersh writes, “On 5/3/19, city staff posts a Do Not Enter sign on front door of restaurant without an order to vacate from the Building and Standards Commission.” Hersh, as the owner’s agent, appealed that same day and the sign was removed. Hersh appealed the suspension of the certificates of occupancy to the Building and Fire Code Board, which took no action. That lack of action means the suspension is still in effect.

Finally, two months after Hersh filed the appeal, the Building and Fire Code Board upheld the fire watch. Casa de Luz is appealing both the suspension of its certificates of occupancy and the determination that it has not complied with requirements of the Fire Code.

Photos by Jo Clifton.

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