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Austin Tentatively Moves Forward With Barbecue Smoke Regulation

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Input from neighbors, restaurateurs, and other affected parties will be a bigger part of any changes.

Hoover Alexander addresses City Council
Hoover Alexander addresses City Council
Meghan McCarron/EATX

Austin City Council changed course on smoke regulations during the April 2 meeting, but the process is far from over. After spirited testimony from affected neighbors and restaurateurs, the council voted to explore a possible code change and convene meetings with all involved parties. The new proposal, which could still include smoke regulation Aaron Franklin previously said could "destroy Austin barbecue," will return to council after July 31.

During the meeting, one consensus quickly formed: no one was in favor of the proposed code, including the affected neighbors. Council member Sabino "Pio" Renteria had submitted a requirement that any wood or charcoal-burning grill had to be one hundred feet from a residentially-zoned property. The residents living behind Terry Black's Barbecue on Barton Springs said the proposed one hundred foot limit was far too short, especially because they lived above the restaurant's smokers.

Guy Watts, one of the residents on Davis Drive, said the current code proposal "lacked specificity." He would prefer a citywide mediation process to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis, and played the following time lapse video for the council to demonstrate their unique problem of smoke drifting up into yards, rather than dissipating at roof level.

Neighbors from Cesar Chavez also protested about smoke from the La Barbecue trailer. Bruce Hughes alleged the trailer's smokers were more of a nuisance than those belonging to similar businesses, and Frank Castro said the smoke's "filth and contaminants" kept him from sitting on his porch. Council member Renteria, who represents District 3, said his primary concern was the boom of barbecue businesses along East Cesar Chavez. The meeting's one moment of drama occurred when Renteria claimed to have attempted to contact the owners of La Barbecue, and owner LeAnn Mueller called across the council chamber, "That's not true!"

In general, business owners expressed frustration over their lack of input into a code change with long-ranging implications. Hoover Alexander of Hoover's Cooking said his restaurant has never had a complaint, and most Austin restaurateurs strive to be good neighbors. Alexander said, "Let us have a voice at the table." Skeeter Miller, owner of the County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, echoed this sentiment.

Several council members, including Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair, expressed reservations that any code change should be considered in response to two isolated incidents. Troxclair said, "Any time you do blanket code change, you're going to put businesses who've had no issues with local neighborhoods in the same category as those who had issues with them." Ora Houston also noted the impact these regulations could have on long-lived businesses as the city continues to grow. "We've got Ed's Barbecue, Hoover's, Willie's. Those businesses have been operation for [decades]. My concerns with the scope of this ordinance is we would have people who come into neighborhood, who are new to the city, and who decide this is a nuisance."

The resolution that was ultimately passed called only for exploring a "possible amendment" to city code, and convening stakeholder groups. After the meeting, Hoover Alexander told Eater he was heartened to hear council members discussing "the economic impact" of any potential regulation, while Tom Micklethwait of Micklethwait Craft Meats was concerned the possibility of these regulations "would drag out."

John Lewis, LeAnn Mueller, and Ali Clem of La Barbecue were all in attendance and expressed bafflement over neighbors' complaints of dirty smoke and Renteria's claim he attempted to contact them. "He never tried to reach out," Mueller said.

La Barbecue will move their smokers to the front of their current home in the GoodLife trailer park as a gesture of goodwill toward their neighbors. Terry Black's Barbecue previously told Eater they're looking into smoke scrubbers and other potential solutions (they tweeted a photo of "very little smoke output" today). LeAnn Mueller did emphasize that in La Barbecue's future brick and mortar home, the smokers will be on the roof, far above any neighboring houses. A final decision on whether Austin will regulate smoke from barbecue and other wood-fired restaurants will wait until this summer.

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