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Board of Adjustment says maintaining area character is not sufficient hardship

Monday, July 20, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

While neighborhood character is an important aspect of design in a historic neighborhood, it is not the only thing the Board of Adjustment takes into account when considering a variance request to modify a home.

Architect Ryan Bollom proposed adding a 450-square-foot, one-story addition to a 768-square-foot home in the historically Black neighborhood of Clarksville.

At the Board of Adjustment on July 13, Board Member Rahm McDaniel said he understood most of Bollom’s justification for the request to decrease the interior side setback from 5 feet to 3 feet, 6 inches; reduce the rear yard setback from 10 to 5 feet; increase building cover allowances from 40 percent to 55 percent; and increase the impervious cover from 45 percent to 65 percent at 1711 Waterston Ave. The requests stemmed from the desire to construct a one-story structure that maintains the character of the neighborhood.

However, he noted that finding common ground with the neighborhood associations in order to get their support is not the primary driver behind the variance decisions weighed at the board. Instead, he said a hardship that prevents reasonable use of the property is necessary to gain a variance.

Board Member Yasmine Smith said that while maintaining the character that speaks to the history of the neighborhood is important to her, she will first and foremost need a hardship to consider voting for a variance allowing construction in setbacks with additional impervious cover.

Other board members said that retaining the facade of the original home to add a one-story addition that encroached into the setbacks on the lot was a design choice that did not result from a unique hardship associated with the lot.

“I also think they can build the house within the confines of the house they have,” Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said.

The board unanimously voted to postpone the case until next month to offer the applicant a chance to present a hardship to support their variance request.

Several of the board members expressed an understanding of the applicant’s request for a side setback in order to accommodate a 9-foot-wide carport along the side of the house. According to Bollom, the architect who was representing the owners, the design guidelines from the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association dictate parking on the side or rear of a house in lieu of the front.

“I think it’s OK to give them the side setback for the carport, but it stops there,” Von Ohlen said.

Chair Don Leighton-Burwell pointed out that part of the one-story addition spills over into the critical root zone of a 19-inch pecan tree on the property, and said he was concerned about the effects of such construction on the tree.

Maxing out the impervious cover on the property also caused some consternation among board members. Von Ohlen and Melissa Hawthorne expressed concern over the requested impervious cover increase, saying that if the house is sold there is no room remaining for a patio or fire pit if a new owner wished to modify the outdoor space.

The lot is a substandard Family Residence (SF-3) lot with only 5,400 square feet of space as compared to the code-defined minimum of 5,750 square feet for that zoning district. Although Bollom presented the lot size as a hardship, both board members and members of the public noted that there are many substandard lots in Clarksville. However, that context, McDaniel said, is being erased by additions and modifications to non-contributing structures like 1711 Waterston Ave. “Many would argue that this historic character of Clarksville has been gentrified out of existence,” he said.

Board Member alternate Kelly Blume said that when the case returns next month she will be looking for the minimum deviation from code in the applicant’s request for a variance.

“I personally can’t support it the way it is right now,” Chair Leighton-Burwell said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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