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Austin planners tweak proposals on home sizes

Property owners and builders criticize details of the proposal, which goes to the council today.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Proposed rules to limit home sizes in Austin passed their first big hurdle Tuesday, winning lukewarm approval from the Planning Commission.

The commission didn't endorse the whole proposal written by a citizen task force, which calls for a limit of 2,300 square feet or a square footage that's 40 percent of the lot size, whichever is greater.

Instead, the commission recommended a handful of ideas that mirror those of the task force to the City Council, which could vote on the issue tonight.

Planners approved the 0.4 ratio for most homes but recommended a less restrictive rule — a square footage that's 50 percent of a lot size — for duplexes and lots with garage apartments. It also asked the city to inventory land suitable for denser forms of housing, such as duplexes, that city leaders often say they want.

A few commissioners complained Tuesday that many details haven't been ironed out and that the plan is being rushed.

The council approved interim home limits in February and pledged to pass permanent rules by June.

"There are just too many unknowns," said Commissioner Matthew Moore, who wanted to delay a vote. He pointed to conflicting examples, cited by builders and property owners at Tuesday's public hearing, of how the rules would work well or terribly.

"We have two groups here saying completely different things," Moore said.

Builders said the 0.4 ratio would make duplexes, which are considered affordable housing, too small to be desirable. Others said the ratio would prevent building garage apartments that provide rental income or space for elderly relatives.

Mike Dahmus hopes to someday add a second story and a garage apartment to his home in the area north of the University of Texas. But he said the size limits would quash that dream.

"There are fundamental property rights being taken away," Dahmus said.

The task force wants homes to fit within a development envelope drawn with certain heights and angles, an idea that the Planning Commission endorsed. Any property owner who wants to build a bigger-than-allowed home could appeal to a residential design board.

The Planning Commission said the appeals process should be be quick, clear and free of political influence. It said the board should be made up of design professionals only — not the neighborhood advocates suggested by the task force — and it should rule on cases within 30 days.

Builder Dean Barrera said task force ideas such as adding space through basements — often expensive to build in Central Texas soil — and "habitable attics" are absurd.

"Nobody in Austin wants a basement, and nobody wants an attic room," he said.

To make its point, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin took out large newspaper ads urging residents to sign petitions against the ordinance.

Rainer Bussmann said the rules could help retain the look and feel of older areas. Bussmann said he moved to the Dawson neighborhood in South Austin last year precisely because of the modestly sized homes that have a special character.

"If I wanted a 4,000-square-foot home, I would go to the suburbs," he said.; 912-2939

If you go

The Austin City Council will hold a public hearing at 6 tonight on proposed home-size limits at City Hall, 301 W. Second St. To view the proposal, visit zoning/sf_regs.htm

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