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Request to build garage apartment for caretaker draws neighborhood opposition

Thursday, January 19, 2023 by Jonathan Lee

A family’s request to allow an above-garage apartment for a caretaker of their special-needs son stoked controversy last Tuesday at the Planning Commission, when neighbors opposed a rezoning necessary to move the plans forward. 

The family – Danielle Skidmore, her ex-wife Melissa Skidmore, their son Peter, and Melissa’s current partner Brad Hoskins – urged the commission to allow multifamily zoning at 705 Brownlee Circle in Old West Austin to allow an above-garage apartment in addition to the main house and accessory dwelling on-site. 

The rezoning would allow everyone to live on the same property with independence and privacy while also being able to care for Peter’s needs. 

“Thirteen years ago, Peter left Old West Austin because we couldn’t find a place to live that accommodated his mobility needs,” Danielle Skidmore, Peter’s caretaker, said. “Now he’s got a chance to return.” The location allows Peter, who uses a wheelchair, to roll to nearby destinations or take the bus that runs on Fifth and Sixth streets. 

The rezoning from Family-Residence (SF-3) to Multifamily-Medium Density (MF-3) zoning drew opposition from several neighbors. While the neighbors say they would welcome the family to the neighborhood, they do not want multifamily zoning next to their single-family homes. They hoped the commission could find another way to accommodate the family without a zoning change. 

Neighbors’ top concern with multifamily zoning is what it could do to compatibility, a rule limiting the height of buildings near single-family homes. If the properties between them and West Sixth Street are zoned multifamily, compatibility’s buffer from tall buildings could change. 

“(Removing compatibility) will allow and maybe even encourage taller buildings with much less of a setback,” Tom Bray, an adjacent neighbor, said. 

Currently, the property’s SF-3 zoning helps provide a buffer from more intense development on Sixth Street. But even if the property is rezoned to multifamily, compatibility might not change much. Though neighboring properties have multifamily zoning, they still trigger compatibility – limiting how tall adjacent properties along Sixth Street could rise – because they are developed with single-family homes.

Beyond compatibility, neighbors aired a litany of other concerns, from lack of parking and sidewalks to trash and maintenance issues to flood risk and threats to trees. 

Ricca Keepers, the family’s land use consultant, said a rezoning is the best solution, and maybe the only one. Even if there were another solution no one had thought of, she said the family has already spent enough money on a rezoning, which costs just over $9,000, not to mention the amount they have paid Keepers to guide them through the complex process. 

Commissioners spent time brainstorming any possible overlooked solutions, but after none arose, they voted unanimously to support the request for MF-3 zoning. 

Some commissioners used the case to highlight the bad outcomes the current Land Development Code produces – and how the failed LDC rewrite could have helped families like the Skidmores. 

“If you want to talk about fixing this, work with us on the code,” Commissioner Awais Azhar said. “We resolved this issue in our Land Development Code (rewrite) when we talked about blended families and intergenerational families.” 

A hearing date at City Council has not yet been scheduled.

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