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City mistakes and heritage tree pave the way for East Austin variance

Friday, July 9, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

Unaware that it was prohibited by city code, Daniel Salazar carefully nestled his new home against his back property line. The project was approved by the city and the mistake was not identified until after the structure was built. 

As a result, Salazar came before the Board of Adjustment seeking a variance in order to retain his newly built secondary house, which he constructed as his personal residence 4.6 feet from the back property line at 2810 Gonzales St.

“I’ve been in Austin for all my life and this has consumed all my energy and most of my finances. I didn’t place this there maliciously – I was following everything that the city of Austin had told me to do,” Salazar said. “I really need to move forward with this because I really don’t have anywhere to live.”

As a hardship, Salazar identified an overextended heritage pecan tree about 35-40 feet in height and breadth. A letter from Miles J. Lefler, a certified arborist, explained that the large tree had dropped limbs in the past and that Salazar feared the tree could be dangerous.

Photo by Google Maps

“I share his concerns,” Lefler wrote. “I feel that this tree could have its major leaders fail at any time. Mr. Salazar felt the farther from the tree he sited his new house, the better for the safety of his family. I agree with him … I feel that he did the prudent thing by moving his new house as far from the subject tree as possible, and I hope the BOA can grant him the variance he seeks, for the sake of completing his new house and for the safety of his family.”

Board Member Rahm McDaniel asked why Salazar did not remove the pecan tree if it was in such bad shape.

“It’s a heritage tree to begin with, and I don’t have the finances to do that,” Salazar explained. 

 Kelly Stilwell, an inspector with the city’s Development Services Department, also spoke on Salazar’s behalf. 

“My staff and I obviously made a mistake on this,” Stilwell said. He noted that the mistake was made by a new inspector during a “very tumultuous time” for the department, which was undergoing a reorganization and had just lost several veteran inspectors. At the time, he said, they had a backlog of two to three weeks on inspections.

“In this line of work, I think that I can identify characters that are being malicious or deceptive pretty easily, and I don’t think that was the case with Mr. Salazar at all,” Stilwell said. He said the only concern with building in the setback was fire separation, which could be mitigated.

McDaniel praised Salazar’s clarity in his presentation. “I know that people talk about the Board of Adjustment being closed off to average citizens. For that reason, I want to commend you for doing a good job on this.”

The motion to approve the variance passed unanimously. 

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