West Austin Neighborhood Group

Preserving and Protecting West Austin

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    Strategies for Preventing Improper Demolition and Construction

    April 3rd, 2009
    by admin

    QUICK LINKS TO
    PROTECTION STRATEGIES:

    Demolition Strategies

    Construction Strategies

    Review Demolition Permits on City Web Site by Street Address

    Know Your Rights — Understanding Private Deed Restrictions and the City’s Zoning and Building Code Requirements

    Prevent Demolition of Historic Properties by
    Contacting Historic Landmark Commission

    Review Building Plans for New Construction

    Apply for Local Historic District Protection

    Contact Property Owner/Builder about Building Plans

    Apply for National Historic District
    Protection

    Contact City Building Inspector about Code Violations or Enforcement Concerns

    Use Deed Restrictions to Protect Neighborhood

    Challenging Zoning Changes and Variance Requests

    DEMOLITION PROTECTION STRATEGIES

    REVIEW DEMOLITION PERMITS ON CITY WEB SITE
    BY STREET ADDRESS
    : To find out if a demolition permit has been granted
    for a property, you can search for Building Plans which are filed with the
    City’s building inspectors before construction or demolition activity
    occurs. You can also search for Permits
    which are granted and updated by the City’s building inspectors as the
    construction or demolition activity occurs.

    To find demolition permits and
    plans, you can search the City’s web site (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/development/pierivr.htm)
    by property address. Unfortunately, you
    need to search for demolition permits at both the Permit Search site (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/pierivr/permit_menu.cfm)
    and the Building Plan search site (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/pierivr/building_plan_menu.cfm)
    by entering the street address of the property in question. The search results from the Permit Search
    site will list “DEMO” in the description field for any demolition permits,
    while search results from the Building Plan search site will usually include a “D” at the end of the
    BP Number for any demolition permits.

    PREVENT DEMOLITION OF HISTORIC PROPERTIES
    BY CONTACTING HISTORIC LANDMARK COMMISSION
    : Currently, the City
    Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Landmark Commission review
    applications for demolition or relocation permits to determine whether a
    building meets the criteria for designation as a historic landmark. The determination is made according to
    objective criteria, but designed to protect those buildings with exceptional
    significance to the city because of their architecture and historical
    associations.

    To determine if a property meets the criteria for
    historic designation, see the City
    of Austin Historic Landmark Designation Criteria
    by
    clicking here. Generally speaking,
    the property must at least (1) be 50 years old, (2) retain sufficient integrity
    to convey its historic appearance and (3) be significant in at least two of the
    following categories: architecture,
    historical association, archeology, community value, or landscape feature. If you believe that a property meets the
    criteria for designation as a historic landmark, please contact Steve Sadowsky,
    Historic Preservation Office (974-6454 or steve.sadowsky@ci.austin.tx.us) with your concerns, and be sure to document all
    communications you have
    .

    APPLY FOR LOCAL HISTORIC DISTRICT
    PROTECTION
    :

    In December 2004, the Austin City Council passed an amendment
    making a number of changes to the historic preservation ordinances, including
    allowing for the establishment of local historic districts by providing
    rehabilitation incentives for properties in such districts. The City Historic Preservation Office is
    developing nomination forms and other materials necessary for the
    implementation of the historic districts. A summary
    of the new ordinance
    that was sent out to landmark owners may be obtained
    by clicking here. Another summary from the City of Austin Preservation
    Officer, entitled “LOCAL HISTORIC DISTRICTS IN AUSTIN,” may be obtained by
    clicking here. THIS
    IS BIG NEWS BECAUSE THE ORDINANCE MAY BE AN EXTREMELY USEFUL TOOL FOR OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.

    According to the summary, tax abatements would be available
    for qualifying improvements or rehabilitations. In addition, design standards for new construction within the district would
    be provided to establish parameters for the design of new construction and to
    provide neighbors within the district a higher level of comfort knowing that
    new construction will be required to follow accepted design standards based
    upon the existing architecture within the district. The district design standards will be
    individually tailored to meet the needs of the particular district, and may
    address building materials, height limits, and setbacks for new construction
    within the district.

    APPLY FOR NATIONAL HISTORIC DISTRICT
    PROTECTION

    The
    National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of historic
    properties worthy of preservation. Listing in the register is an honor and carries no direct restrictions. A common misconception is that houses in an
    historic district cannot be remodeled or demolished. This is not correct. Under Federal law, owners of private property
    listed in the National Register are free to maintain, manage, or dispose of their
    property as they choose provided that there is no Federal involvement. Owners have no obligation to open their
    properties to the public, to restore them or even to maintain them, if they
    choose not to do so.

    Benefits
    of registration include:

    ·        Recognition for
    historic importance of the Deep Eddy Heights area to our community,

    ·        Increased property
    values (think of increased personal wealth),

    ·        Additional protection
    from federal activities (think of MoPac),

    ·        Eligibility for tax
    credits of 20 percent for the approved rehabilitation of income producing
    properties (including duplexes, apartments and dwellings converted to office
    uses) (think of renovating Deep Eddy Pool or Cabaret),

    ·        Qualification for
    Federal grants for historic preservation, when funds are available.

    Potential
    drawbacks include the possibility that the City’s Historic Landmark Commission
    might consider a listing on the National Register historic commission as part
    of its determination of whether to deny a demolition permit. However, it appears that the Historic
    Landmark Commission is no longer following this policy.

    Additional
    details about the qualification requirements and application process is
    available at www.cr.nps.gov/nr/index.htm and at www.WestAustinNG.com/Deep%20Eddy%20Presentation.pdf,
    which is a summary of information collected regarding an earlier investigation
    of pursuing historic district protection for the Deep Eddy Heights area.

    USE DEED RESTRICTIONS TO PROTECT NEIGHBORHOOD: At our May 2005
    board meeting, Nikelle
    Meade, a partner with the Brown McCarroll law firm
    , presented information
    on how deed restrictions can be used as an effective tool for like-minded
    neighbors to protect their local neighborhood from over development. A summary of the presentation, entitled
    “Restrictive Covenants” is available by clicking here.

    WANG will work toward setting up a
    program to help small groups of neighbors (perhaps a group of neighbors on a
    one or two street area) enact an agreed set of deed restrictions that would
    preserve the general "look and feel" of the street, or at least
    prevent the most offensive development outcomes.

    CONSTRUCTION PROTECTION STRATEGIES

    KNOW YOUR RIGHTS — UNDERSTANDING PRIVATE DEED RESTRICTIONS
    AND THE CITY’S ZONING AND BUILDING CODE REQUIREMENTS
    :

    Zoning and Building Code Restrictions: Zoning districts
    were established to promote compatible land use within the City limits and to
    control development density. Zoning
    districts typically set restrictions on building height, bulk layout,
    impervious cover, fence height, etc. SF-3 “Family Residence” is the predominant zoning district for West
    Austin, though there are also some commercial properties along Exposition and
    Lake Austin Boulevard.

    As a property owner, you are ENTITLED to the land
    uses that are defined by the zoning for your property. From a historical perspective, the
    restrictions on land use provided in the zoning districts (such as impervious
    cover) were intended to be an absolute upper bound on property use, and were
    never intended to define an sort of “average” use definition. So when you purchase an SF-3 zoned property,
    you have the right to make the following uses of your property:

    You can build a single family house (or
    a duplex if the lot is 7000 sq. ft) that can be positioned on the property up
    to the minimum setback distances from your property lines (front yard setback
    of 25′, street side yard setback of 15′, interior side yard setback of 5′, and rear
    yard setback of 10′). Under coverage
    limits, the building can cover up to 40% of the property, and the total
    impervious coverage can be up to 45% of the property. If you build any fences on the property line,
    the fence may be 6′ in average height, but may be a maximum of eight feet in
    height if the fence is located on or within the building setback lines.

    According to the Residential Design
    & Compatibility Standards (the “McMansion Ordinance”), there is a “floor-to-area
    ratio” limit on the size of the home to the greater of 2,300 square feet or a
    square footage that is 40 percent of the lot size, though certain features (such
    as attics, small attached garages, detached rear garages and first-floor
    porches) are not counted toward the size because these elements do not add to
    the mass and bulk homes. A setback
    building envelope was also added to push height away from adjacent neighbors,
    allowing traditional two story homes (e.g., up to 20 feet tall) to be built at
    the five foot setback line, but requiring taller structures to be moved away
    from the adjacent neighbors. In
    addition, a height limit of 32 feet applies for single family homes (30 ft. for
    duplexes), and side wall articulation requirement was added for certain
    sidewalls over 32 feet in length and 15 feet in height. The “McMansion Ordinance” addresses concerns
    about overly large new houses that loom over existing neighbors and destroy
    neighborhood character, but that would still allow homeowners to build bigger
    and taller homes.

    There are also certain permitted
    uses for an SF-3 zoned property. For
    example, authorized residential uses for SF-3 zoning include Single-family
    Residential, Lodging-house Residential (Owner occupied B&B) and Retirement
    Housing (small site). Civic uses for
    SF-3 zoning include Communication Service Facility, Day Care Services
    (limited), Group Home, Class I (General), School and Religious Assembly.

    To see a summary of the zoning requirements for
    SF-3 residential properties (which is the zoning category that applies to most
    of the WANG area), see the “Zoning 101
    summary and the City’s
    Site Development Standards for Residential Zoning
    .

    In addition, the 2001
    Neighborhood Planning Guide to Zoning
    is a
    handy reference guide that lists all zoning codes (e.g. SF-1, MF-4) and their
    specifications, such maximum building height, minimum lot size, and allowed
    uses.  Also included are descriptions of allowed civic, commercial,
    industrial, and residential uses. The first section of the guide lists the
    Smart Growth infill and redevelopment options under the Neighborhood Plan
    Combining District. 

    Private Deed Restrictions and Restrictive
    Covenants
    : In addition to use
    limitations provide by zoning laws, deed restrictions and/or restrictive
    covenants may also limit use of a property. For example, the deed restrictions for a property may impose a front
    yard setback requirement that is more restrictive than the city’s
    requirement. Very often, a property
    record search must be made in order to locate such restrictions/covenants, but
    they can be a powerful tool for preserving property values and neighborhood
    standards.

    Deed restrictions are considered “private” matters
    and are not enforced by the City. Normally deed restrictions deal with the character of the neighborhood
    and can be enforced by neighborhood associations or private citizens in civil
    court.

    REVIEW BUILDING PLANS FOR NEW CONSTRUCTION: Residential permit
    applications for a property usually include a description of the project
    (square footage, impervious cover, etc.) and a topographical survey with the
    outlines of the structure to be built. To see the applications filed by the builder with the City, you can
    search the Building Plans web site (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/pierivr/building_plan_menu.cfm)
    by property address. The search results
    from the Building Plan search site will usually include a link (labeled “APPLICATION”) to the application under the “DOCUMENT
    INFORMATION” heading, though the documents are downloaded as TIF files that
    sometimes are blocked by pop-up blockers on your browser, so you may need to
    jiggle your browser settings.

    CONTACT PROPERTY OWNER/BUILDER ABOUT BUILDING PLANS: Neighbors
    who live near a new home or remodel project will very often want any project to
    be compatible with the existing “look and feel” of the street, and may also
    have helpful information for the new owner regarding easements, private deed
    restrictions, water flow concerns, etc. All concerned parties can benefit by meeting early in the construction
    process about a project. To contact a
    new property owner, try reaching the owner or builder identified at the
    property site, or look up the owner on the Travis Central Appraisal District web site by performing a property address search at http://www.traviscad.org/travissearch.php?mode=situs&kind=real.

    CONTACT CITY BUILDING INSPECTOR ABOUT CODE VIOLATIONS OR
    ENFORCEMENT CONCERNS
    : If you are concerned that the City is not
    enforcing its land use and zoning requirements relating to impervious cover,
    setback requirements, tree protection, you can contact your neighborhood
    association by clicking here, but you should also contact the City code enforcement
    directly at Zoning.Enforcement@ci.austin.tx.us or 974-6576. You should be prepared to provide a specific property address and to
    specify your concern. Violations can be
    reported anonymously. The City will
    follow up a zoning violation with a verbal notice. If no action taken, a written notice will be
    sent. Finally, a court date will be set
    if no action is taken. A court can fine
    up to $2000/day for noncompliance.

    CHALLENGING ZONING CHANGES AND VARIANCE
    REQUESTS
    : Property owners are required to comply with the current
    zoning rules if they wish to expand and/or improve their property. If a property owner wishes to exceed the
    allowed zoning uses or requirements, he or she must obtain a “variance” or
    zoning change before making any changes on the property. A property owner wishing to have an exception
    from the current zoning restrictions can file a variance request with the
    City. One needs to go before the Board
    of Adjustment for a zoning variance, at which point neighborhood input is
    permitted, as described below. No
    construction is permitted until a variance is granted and/or an appeal is
    completed. To see the Board of
    Adjustment rules and regulations, click here.

    Prior to the Board of Adjustment
    hearing (described above), notices of the variance request are sent to
    residents within 300′ of the property and to any organization having an
    interest in the application (such as a neighborhood organization). If an affected resident or neighborhood
    organization objects to the variance request, that objection should be
    presented at the Board of Adjustment hearing. Objections may be presented by filing out the objection form provided
    with the notice and delivering it to the Board.

    Either party may appeal a variance
    decision by the Board of Adjustments. An
    appeal must be filed within 14 days, and can only be filed by the property
    owner in question, property owners within 500′ of the property or an officer of
    affected environmental or neighborhood organization.

    In addition, a “petition” procedure requires a
    super majority of the City Council to approve a zoning change. Instructions on how to file a valid
    petition
    to protest a proposed zoning change are available by clicking here. Under this procedure, neighbors within a 200′
    radius of the property in question who protest a zoning change can file a
    “petition” with the City Council. If a
    written protest against a proposed rezoning, signed by 20% or more of either
    the area of the lots or land included in such proposed change, or of the lots
    or land immediately adjoining the same and extending 200 feet therefrom, such
    rezoning shall not become effective except by the favorable vote of
    three-fourths of all members of the Council.

    For more detailed information, see
    the “Zoning 101 presentation handouts” on the Austin Neighborhoods Council web
    site at www.ancweb.org/docs/Zoning%20101%20Handout.pdf.

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