loss of trees, shrubs and grass (greenspace) from the grant of minor variances
in the City of Austin was quantified. Eighty-five minor variance applications
available for most of 1996 were tabulated. Adjustments in property line
set back were requested by the majority of applicants. The calculable loss--which greatly underestimates the actual loss--of greenspace from the grant of minor variances equaled approximately 4.15
acres (180,697 ft2).
Households requesting minor variances that decreased greenspace were more
often located in areas of high income, high home appraisal value, and low
use regulations were unnecessary in the agrarian society of the United
States in the early nineteenth century; however, conflicts between land
uses, for example residential versus industrial, arose with increasing
industrialization and urbanization of the country (Lounsbury, Sommers &
Fernald, 1981). During 1916 in New York City, integrated zoning first emerged
as an extension of the common law of nuisances which states that "one
must use his or her own [property] rights so as not to infringe upon the
[property] rights of others" (Yeates, 1990, p.143). With the 1926 landmark
decision in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (272 U.S. 365)
the U.S. Supreme Court constitutionally approved the use of public regulatory
power--or "police power" which declares that private interests
are subordinate to community interests--to specify the development and
use of private land (Platt, 1996). Consequently, "Euclidean zoning"
became the conventional land use control found in numerous communities
of zoning was that it provided "stability and predictability for the
benefit of property owners and investors," but zoning has paradoxically
developed "toward greater flexibility to cope with the unexpected
and the unfair" (Platt, 1996, p.243). Flexibility in zoning is achieved
through amendments and variances. A minor variance is a procedure to provide
bureaucratic relief from development standards of the Zoning Ordinance
when such deviations allow for the reasonable use and development of a
property. The granting of minor variances decreases urban greenspace and
increases surface run-off (Wije, 1981). One reason for the urban heat island
effect is the loss of greenspace. (Kumanan, 1970, cited in Wije, 1981).
This paper identifies the patterns and quantifies the loss of trees, shrubs
and grass (greenspace) from the grant of minor variances for most of 1996
in the City of Austin.
minor variance request forms available for most of 1996 were examined from
the Development, Review and Inspection Department located on 301 West 2nd
Street, Austin, Texas 78701. For each application the date, zone district,
variance request, board vote and public hearing results were recorded.
The data were tabulated, areas of greenspace (trees, shrubs, and grass)
loss quantified, and the addresses decreasing greenspace were mapped with
the commercial on-line mapping service, Yahoo! Maps. Utilizing Microstation,
the addresses that reduced greenspace were also plotted on a map of Austin,
Texas created from the Travis county design file (227urban.dgn) which was
obtained from the Texas Natural Resource Information System (TNRIS) download
area. The final project was published on the World Wide Web (WWW) in HyperText
Markup Language (HTML 3.0) using Netscape Gold Web-Page Editor.
1 shows the results of the minor variance applications available
for 1996 in the City of Austin. Of the 85 total requests, the majority
of applicants (25) appealed for adjustments in property line set back.
Many applicants desired a decrease in front yard set back (FYSB)
to erect a garage or a decrease in front street set back (FSSB)
to erect a carport. Others needed to reduce rear yard set back (RYSB)
to construct an addition to their house or maintain a side street set back
(SSSB) which did not meet the zoning requirements for their district.
largest number of cases (15) resulted in no net change in impervious ground
cover (IGC). These applicants removed and added an equivalent area
of asphalt; increased the height of a fence, wall or sign; or added a second
story to their residence. Reductions in the required number of off street
parking spaces (OSPS) formed the third most common number (nine)
of requests. Unlike the "property line set back" and "no
net change" applicants who lived predominantly in the Single Family
Residence (SF3) and Lake Austin (LA) zone districts, the "off street
parking space" applicants owned businesses located in the Commercial
Services (CS) and Limited Industrial Services (LI) zone districts.
were denied, four were postponed and six were withdrawn (Table 1). For
the two denied applications, the first requested a reduction in rear yard
set back (RYSB) creating 54 ft2
of impervious ground cover (IGC); the second appealed to add a driveway
increasing the IGC by 8.23% above the 45% allowed maximum. The postponed
and withdrawn applications were zoned Single Family Residence (SF3), Commercial
Services (CS) and Limited Industrial Services (LI).
minor variance applications that resulted in a calculable loss of greenspace
were quantified in
2. A total of approximately 4.15 acres (180,697 ft2)
of greenspace was lost in Austin during 1996 from these requests. Most
of the applicants resided in the Single Family Residence (SF3) zone district.
All addresses from
Table 2 were mapped in
1. The mapped houses were generally located in a north-south direction
between MoPac Boulevard and Interstate 35. Households requesting minor
variances that decreased greenspace were more often located in areas of
high income, high home appraisal value, and low minority population. East
Austin, with its combination of higher African-American and Hispanic populations,
lower home appraisal values and lower household incomes had zero variances
that decreased greenspace.
study brought to light the amount of trees, shrubs and grass (greenspace)
lost in the City of Austin from the grant of minor variances. The 4.15
acre loss for 1996 is an extremely conservative number (Table 2). Minor
variance applications are not prepared for research purposes; therefore,
much of the loss in greenspace could not be readily quantified. Many of the applications
were incomplete, lacking important information such as the entire dimensions
of a new impervious addition. Furthermore, at the time the data were collected,
around late October, some of the applications for 1996 were still pending.
of minor variance applicants appealed for adjustments in property line
set back, for example to erect a garage or construct an addition to their
house. A modification which uses the land more intensely is one of the
common types of land-use change (Wilder, 1985). Although applicants built
carports, increased fence heights and decreased the number of parking spaces
for their businesses, their property still had the same type of use. Similarly,
Wilder (1985) discovered that land remains in the same type of use even
if changes are made to the buildings on the land. The "property line
set back" and "no net change" applicants lived mainly in
the Single Family Residence (SF3) and Lake Austin (LA) zone districts,
while the "off street parking space" applicants were zoned Commercial
Services (CS) and Limited Industrial Services (LI). This pattern of similar
changes for different zone districts is supported by Wilder (1985) who
found that land-use change differs by location. Moreover, Wilder (1985,
p.332) states, ". . .certain land uses (e.g., low-density housing)
are more conducive to change." Of the 85 applications examined, the
majority of applicants were zoned Single Family Residence (SF3) and Lake
Austin (LA). Both these zone districts were planned for low-density, family
housing: SF3 minimum lot size, 5,750 ft2
to 7,000 ft2
and LA minimum lot size, one acre.
showed that for applications postponed or denied by the Austin City Council
and for applications withdrawn by the applicant, no modifications took
place on their property.
Table 1 shows that two applications were denied,
four were postponed and six were withdrawn. These applications were zoned
Single Family Residence (SF3), Commercial Services (CS) and Limited Industrial
Services (LI). According to Willhelm (1961, p.105), ". . . the effect
of zoning upon the utilization of the land is most direct when zoning applications
are denied or postponed by the [Austin] City Council or withdrawn by the
of households requesting minor variances that decreased greenspace were
located in a north-south direction between MoPac Boulevard and Interstate
35 (Figure 1). East Austin had zero variances that decreased greenspace.
Maps from the 1995 Consolidated Plan for the City of Austin revealed
that most of the areas of minority concentration and the areas of low income
concentration were located east of Interstate 35 (Anon., 1995). The results
of an Austin American-Statesman computer analysis of over 500,000
Travis Central Appraisal District records showed that areas east of Interstate
35 generally had lower home appraisal values (Hiott & South, 1994).
The distribution of addresses diminishing greenspace in
Figure 1 could
be an economic indicator showing the disparity among Austinites; however,
it should be noted that the possibility of higher rates of noncompliance in East Austin may also be a factor for this distribution.
Texas the Edwards Aquifer is a major source of drinking water, and the
aquifer feeds the Barton Springs swimming hole in Austin (Mullen, 1988).
Due to the publicizing of the need for zoning laws changes, when big construction
projects in Austin require rezoning, constant public scrutiny results over its negative
environmental effects. Yet, the public at large is unaware of the
enormous loss of greenspace within the law by the cumulative effects of these small incremental
changes from authorizing minor variance adjustments. Because the loss of greenspace
creates not only unaesthetic neighborhoods but also greater surface run-off
levels and urban heat islands, further studies over longer periods of time
are needed to investigate the "invisible loss" of this scarce
resource in the City of Austin.
thank the Development, Review and Inspection Department of Austin for supplying
the data; the Texas Natural Resources Information System (TNRIS)
for providing the Travis county design file; Vicinity
Corporation which powers the on-line mapping service, Yahoo!
Kenneth E. Foote, Donald
J. Huebner and Keene
Haywood for introducing me to this Brave
New World of geographical information systems (GIS) and web publishing;
Christian for the tons of technical support, and my father for giving
me the idea for this project.
Anonymous. (1995). 1995 Consolidated
plan. Austin: Neighborhood Housing and
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