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Council nixes appeal, asks staff to work with restaurant

Friday, October 4, 2019 by Jo Clifton

On Thursday City Council rejected an appeal from Casa de Luz, a vegan restaurant on Toomey Road that has had multiple disputes with building officials, the latest one specifically about compliance with requirements of the city fire code. The appeal in question was from a determination by the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals to uphold staff action.

However, in rejecting the appeal, Council made clear it wanted city staff to work with Casa de Luz to get the restaurant’s sprinkler system up and running and resolve any other issues jeopardizing the restaurant’s ability to stay in business.

Stuart Hersh, a retired city employee, has represented Casa de Luz on a pro bono basis since 2013. He told Council that his client was concerned that the city would revoke the restaurant’s certificate of occupancy and cause the electricity to be turned off. While acknowledging that Casa de Luz had not done everything perfectly along the way, Hersh said the city had also made a number of mistakes.

The case represents many of the things that can go wrong when two sides are not in perfect agreement about what city code requires, especially in the case of an old building that has been retrofitted for a new use.

City code requires that Fire Department apparatus have easy access to the building or that the building have sprinklers that have been designed, installed and inspected to meet city standards. The owner of Casa de Luz had sprinklers installed last October, but without going through the usual city permitting processes. Now the city wants the restaurant to change some things about that installation, but the situation remains difficult.

Hersh has made a point about the fact that while some members of city staff acknowledged that the restaurant had a valid certificate of occupancy, other members of staff denied it. He said that issue was finally resolved in January 2019 at a meeting with staff on both sides of the issue.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza at first suggested that Council take no action on the appeal and encourage the parties to work together. Council Member Ann Kitchen noted that failing to act would have the same effect as rejecting the appeal.

Although the suspension of the certificate of occupancy remains in effect, as well as the Fire Watch, the restaurant is able to function and is currently complying with Fire Watch regulations, which require the business to hire a qualified person to watch for fire and make sure everyone can get out of the building safely.

Mayor Steve Adler said he wanted to deny the appeal, but he would trust city staff to work with the business owner to give him a chance to fix the problems with the sprinkler system, which is the main reason the certificate of occupancy is in jeopardy.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said, “I just want to make clear we want this business to survive,” calling Casa de Luz “an iconic local business.”

Kitchen made the motion to deny the appeal and Council Member Leslie Pool provided the second. Council Member Greg Casar said he wanted to make sure that denying the appeal would not “erect a roadblock” for the restaurant.

City building official Beth Culver told Casar that denying the appeal would not make things any more difficult for the restaurant.

Culver told the Austin Monitor after the hearing that the city does not intend to revoke Casa de Luz’s certificate of occupancy “unless compliance isn’t gained during a reasonable time frame that we agree upon.”

She said city staff would meet with Hersh to go over the steps the restaurant needs to take in order to be in compliance and to determine what a reasonable time frame for complying might be.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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