Thursday, October 28, 2010

Austin, Texas, City Council's decision on annexation will affect autistic boy's horse therapy


AUSTIN -- In a case of government versus private property rights, a Leander student's future -- a boy who has autism -- will be decided at a Thursday Austin City Council meeting when it votes on the Boulder Lane forced annexation .

A ‘yea’ vote will take away 13-year-old Hunter Hinze’s rights, in part, if Council doesn’t also grant perpetual rights to have horses on the family’s 2-1/2 acres in northwest Travis County.

The family of four has lived there for almost five years. Dr. John Hinze and wife, Kathy, bought the property expecting it to be the home where one day they would live out their final years -- a home that would also provide for their son for the rest of his life, given his special needs. Hippotherapy with the two horses housed there is a critical part of Hunter’s care.

For now, the City Planning Department is proposing the Hinzes be granted 10 years and then they have to get rid of the animals, according to Kathy Hinze. The family learned about the annexation in a letter they received in September.

The issue of annexation is over a city water line that runs beneath Boulder Lane – and while the Hinzes use private well water for many things – the family has the option to use city water. Because the water line is adjacent to their property, the Hinze land has to abide by city codes and rules if annexed. Thus, City Council and staff get to make the rules about horses on the land, and for how long they’re allowed.

The property – built in 1983 -- is already under covenants and rules of the 620 Oak subdivision homeowners’ association, which has approved horses at the Hinze house indefinitely. The HOA was formed 35 years ago and remains in effect.

“The neighbors like our horses,” Kathy said, explaining that there hasn’t been a problem.

Only nine of the 29 acreages in the subdivision are part of the vote because they are adjacent to the water line – and that’s how the Hinze home is involved. Its lot borders Boulder Lane.

Hunter undergoes hippotherapy at home, where horses are used in his treatment. The family owns two other horses that do not live on the property. Hunter was diagnosed with autism he was 26 months old and the family’s life choices are based on this condition.

“We’re not running a business there. We’re not a hippotherapy center,” said Kathy. “This is for him, for his care.”

John Hinze is an Austin doctor who specializes in interventional pulmonary care and critical care medicines. He is on staff at Pulmonary and Critical Care Consultants of Austin and practices at four area hospitals: Brackenridge, Seton, St. David’s and Heart . His mother, Kathy, is a former critical care nurse. Hunter has an older sister, Hannah, 15.

In the past 11 years, the family has moved six times, as John Hinze completed school and an internship, but also to find the best possible arrangement to care for Hunter’s autism. When the family found the home in Travis County, they believed it would be their last move, and did all the right things to ensure having horses was approved by the powers-that-be, according to Kathy Hinze.

“We haven’t added on to anything. We have a riding arena. We’ve only refurbished a 15-year-old barn, which is really a glorified shed, for the horses,” she said. “The house is big enough in the east wing to one day provide room for a caretaker to live, as we get older and can’t care for ourselves, and for Hunter. This house fits our ‘forever need.’”

Though in 10 years, Hunter will be almost 24 years old (he turns 14 next month), Kathy said he will never be able to live on his own nor hold down a full-time job. Therefore, the horses at home will remain an important part of his life for the rest of his life, as will the property.

“He will not learn how to write,” she explained. “He has what’s called ‘splintered skills.’ He has very little spontaneous verbal language, though once in awhile he’ll come out with a five-word sentence. He has receptive language, which means he can understand a lot. His motor planning is great, as long as I guide him in the steps. And the horses, he loves them.”

Hunter attends a regular school day at Leander Independent School District, though he is not main-streamed. The district just three weeks ago has begun experimental use of an iPad to augment communication with Hunter.

“We couldn’t have found a better school district than Leander,” Kathy said.

Three therapists a week also come to the family’s home to work with Hunter on academics, speech, bicycling, the horses, and activities in the community – such as grocery shopping – to teach him skills as he grows.

“Hunter helps clean the barn, he helps with the hay,” his mother said – all tasks which help him negotiate the autism.

As for meeting with Austin’s City Council, Kathy said she’s had face-to-face meetings with only one member via an advisor, Glen Coleman, of Randi Shade ’s staff.

“I sent e-mails to the others, asking them to come out to our house, but they said they didn’t see it,” she said. “People from

the Zoning Department, Health Department, a city street engineer and a few others came out and we met for 3-1/2 hours. Mr. Brand from the Health Department told me it didn’t matter how clean my barn was, no matter how I use it – he said my setbacks do not meet the city’s code, and so they have to say ‘no.’”

The Hinzes are not giving up, but hope that after a meeting on Wednesday morning with all the Council members’ advisers, that the vote on Thursday will go their way – that they will be granted a perpetual allowance to keep the horses on their property.

“We hope the City of Austin will realize the uniqueness of our family and respect our rights as property owners," she said. "That they will recognize the covenants and deed restrictions of the HOA that has been in existence for 35 years.”