Car Croquet

Neighborhood leaders seek stronger code enforcement front-lawn parking.

Since moving into his duplex in North Austin last year, Larry Walker's next-door neighbors have turned their lawn into a parking lot. What's worse, he says, is that they occasionally drive across his grass in order to get around their many cars. "I told them, 'Look, I don't want you on my front yard,'" says Walker, a member of the North Austin Civic Association and a seasoned community activist. "'I don't park on my front yard, or drive across it, and I don't want you to.'"

On a recent gray evening, Walker drove through his neighborhood to point out lawn after lawn populated with cars, cement trucks, boats, and other vehicles. "They make the neighborhood look like hell," he says. His neighbors continue to park in his driveway, he said, and sometimes hold "Bud Light beer parties where the dress code appears to be shirtless." Last year, a neighbor broke the rear window of a van owned by one of Walker's friends, a matter that remains unresolved in small claims court.

Walker says he's not the only North Austinite suffering from the onslaught. A neighbor recently told him that she can't see around her neighbors' collection of vans and trucks when she pulls out of her driveway each morning; she worries about accidents. Though North Austin boasts "a lot of good people," Walker says that front-lawn parking now affects five to 10 streets in his neighborhood, and the number is growing.

"With better code enforcement, those guys wouldn't park in my yard," Walker says. An ardent members of NACA's Code Enforcement Committee, he stops his car, grabs a folder, and pulls out an article published by the Austin American-Statesman in 1999, which points out that while Austin's population has grown, the number of code enforcement officers has actually declined. Since the article, city administrators have reorganized several key city departments, but haven't hired additional inspectors -- or made any attempts to regulate front-lawn parking. Yet in San Antonio, Walker points out, front-lawn parking is a zoning violation regulated by code enforcement officers equipped with pagers, cell phones, and laptops. Arlington also regulates front-lawn parking through its Code Enforcement Division.

Better code enforcement is necessary to maintain neighborhood aesthetics and quality of life, Walker and other advocates say. But Austin's current budget doesn't allocate funds for more code enforcement officers, who could regulate front-lawn parking and other concerns. This, in part, has prompted NACA and a citywide coalition of neighborhood groups to align behind an ordinance proposed by Council Member Danny Thomas that would regulate front-lawn parking. Last week, NACA hosted a presentation at Lanier High School that attracted city staff, members of the Austin Police Dept., and representatives of at least 21 different neighborhood associations, many of whom vocally supported Thomas' draft ordinance imposing a $40 fine for each car parked on a residential front lawn ($20 for early payees). The meeting included a presentation of photos taken in neighborhoods across the city, showing yards turned into crowded parking lots by their owners.

Mary Gay Maxwell of the North University Neighborhood Association agrees that better code enforcement would help resolve her neighborhood's parking issues that "have their own flavor" due to the number of UT students who rent apartments nearby. "The city's response to us is, 'We don't have it in the budget' -- but that's because they don't put it in the budget," she says. Her neighborhood, she says, is suffering from a growing number of duplexes -- "big-box" housing units that often have more tenants than parking spaces.

Council Member Thomas and a panel of city officials were on hand to explain the details of the draft ordinance, which will have to survive three council readings before it comes up for a vote. "I see victory in the end," he said.

But Thomas shouldn't get too optimistic too quickly.

Questions about the ordinance raised at Lanier hinted at problems that may be irresolvable. Among its practical flaws, the ordinance does not correspond well with an existing ordinance restricting the amount of impervious cover on a residential lot. And since it deals strictly with front-lawn parking, the ordinance doesn't even touch upon the myriad issues that bother code-enforcement advocates -- including illegal home-based businesses and boats parked on front lawns. Furthermore, the ordinance seems destined to raise opposition from other neighborhood advocates. Lori Renteria, of East Cesar Chavez, brought her own photo presentation to point out that many homes in Austin either have no existing driveways, or have no ground to lay them. In its current form, the ordinance does not acknowledge families and student renters who may have no authority or money to construct a driveway. "I suggest this ordinance be adopted neighborhood by neighborhood," she said.

One way to achieve that would be through deed restrictions, allowing individual neighborhood associations to accept or reject the parking ban. NACA secretary Linda Moore says she's already discussed that option with lawyers she knows, and it isn't feasible. "No neighborhood association has the money to take all offenders to court," she says, "and if you lose, you're in worse shape."

Council Member Daryl Slusher credits NACA for trying to deal with a "legitimate problem," but says he's skeptical about the ordinance, which seems like "an enforcement nightmare." Council Member Beverly Griffith applauds NACA for drawing attention to the city's "interactive challenges," but worries about neighborhoods that oppose or can't realistically apply the ordinance. She believes the high concentration of cars on front lawns indicates an affordable housing shortage. "We don't want people to have to be driven out of the city limits," she says. "You won't have that concentration if you have adequate housing."

Perhaps the proposed ordinance's biggest flaw: It does not treat front-lawn parking as a zoning violation but as a traffic violation, placing it under the jurisdiction of the APD. APD's Abandoned Vehicles Unit has only two civilian officers and one uniformed officer, in addition to district representatives who deal with abandoned and junk/nuisance vehicles. By city code, abandoned vehicles are those that are illegally parked on public property, parked on private property without the property owner's consent, or inoperable and parked on public property, for a 48-hour period. Junk vehicles are inoperable and parked on private property.

Informed of Thomas' proposed ordinance, senior officer Tim Smith of Abandoned Vehicles gives a long, hearty laugh. "That's insane," he says. "I'm already working my you-know-what off, working these stickers." (City code requires officers to place brightly colored tags on all abandoned and junk vehicles they cite.) While he receives help from the two civilian officers, Smith handles all paper work and takes complaint calls, which he says number 15 to 20 per day. From January 1 to the end of August, he's taken 733 complaints and tagged more than 1,051 cars (some properties boast multiple vehicles). "I'm pretty worked to the bone," Smith says. "We've been kind of requesting additional officers to help me, but the budget hasn't allowed it."

Smith acknowledges that junk cars in particular can leak environmentally hazardous fluids, attract rats, and look unappealing. But he has no problem with operable vehicles parked on lawns, and believes Thomas' ordinance would appease a few while punishing the rest. With the economic slowdown, he says, more and more people will park two, three or more working vehicles on their lawns simply to escape paying high car-insurance fees. "Austin's as laid back as you can get," he says. "When you have a law like this, it's like, 'Gosh darn it, what else are they going to outlaw?'"

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Larry Walker, code enforcement, North Austin Civic Association, San Antonio, Arlington, Danny Thomas, Austin Police Department, Lanier High School, Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association, Lori Renteria, Linda Moore, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith

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