Point Austin: Beside the Point

A House Divided ... and Subdivided

Point Austin
"Why so large cost, having so short a lease," asked Shakespeare, "does thou upon your fading mansion spend?" (Sonnet 146). If only the Bard could query City Council this week, as the beleaguered members bide their time – before shuffling off the mortal coil of May elections – sweating over new interim home development regulations, aka the "McMansion" ordinance. Why council picked this particular fight right now is unclear, but the acrimony on all sides is anything but. With 300 citizens signed up to speak last Thursday (and only 50 or so getting time at the podium, in several hours), council passed the interim rules on first reading. Facing more raucous debate today, the ordinance is up for passage on second and third readings. Well, after officially postponing the bond election until November, they had to do something worth the cost of admission.

Shouldered onto the agenda by Brewster McCracken and co-sponsored by Betty Dunkerley and Lee Leffingwell, the ordinance addresses the trend of nouveau-riche monstrosities being erected on the lots of demolished, comparatively diminutive homes, often in once-sleepy, now upmarket neighborhoods like Tarrytown and Hyde Park. Aside from bulldozing neighborhood plans, McCracken said their construction often adversely affects the quality of life and property values of older homes dwarfed next door.

As passed last week, the ordinance applies new development regulations to the rebuilding and remodeling of older single-family homes. In either case, builders may select the largest of three measures: for new homes, the limit is 2,500 square feet; 40% of the lot size; or 20% bigger than the previous domicile. The 2,500 square foot/40% option also applies to remodeling, as does a third choice, the existing size plus 1,000 feet, to builders granted a homestead exemption. The interim ordinance, applied as an emergency measure justified by drainage concerns, will expire in early June, while a council-convened stakeholder committee will recommend language for permanent regulations no later than May 7.

Builders and architects were especially strongly opposed to the ordinance, and several speakers singled out the city's argument of environmental and drainage protection as less than watertight. Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman and Watershed Protection and Review's George Oswald, in presentations preceding the onslaught, emphasized that the ordinance only applied to homes in subdivisions approved before 1974, when the city implemented comprehensive drainage regulation – "so we know that subdivisions built prior to that time are the least able to support drainage infrastructure that is stressed," said Huffman. That didn't wash with several moratorium opponents, who said that additional stories on a house constituted much desired "density" without creating a larger impervious cover footprint.

So while one 'hood's density might be another's McManse, maybe instead of asking why, we should ponder how to implement the ordinance. To cater more discretely to differing neighborhood needs, the ordinance might be better incorporated into neighborhood plans, or zoning regulations. Mayor Will Wynn seemed to favor such an approach, once council finally discussed the matter following citizen testimony, when he specifically addressed over-cramped duplexes used as student housing. The Planning Commission convened Valentine's Day to vet the ordinance, and will deliver their remarks today (Thursday). Look for duplexes to be included in the moratorium, and intensified consternation on all sides.

Impervious cover jokes aside, when it rains at council, it pours – Monday, the SOS Alliance flooded city hall with over 20,000 petition signatures. Once verified, as expected, they'll be enough to put the "Save Our Springs Charter Amendment" on a May ballot. But not yet filed is SOS' accompanying "Open Government Online" amendment. What happened? SOS director Bill Bunch told us he'd been working with Leffingwell and City Manager Toby Futrell to come to a compromise; what they found objectionable, no doubt, were provisions that all council members, their staff, city managers, department heads, and more post notice of all phone calls, conversations, and e-mails relating to city business, online and in real time. Negotiations haven't yet worked, but Bunch said he was holding off filing the petitions until he speaks with other council members. City staff says the measures would cost well over $30 million to implement; Bunch calls that figure grossly inflated. The waterworks have already commenced.

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Austin City Council, McMansion, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley, Tarrytown, Hyde Park, Neighborhood Planning Commission, Laura Huffman, Watershed Protection and Review George Oswald, Will Wynn, Save Our Springs, Bill Bunch, Edwards Aquifer, open government

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