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Council opens public hearing on Beth El

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday June 07, 2001

The City Council opened the first round of what promises to be a long public hearing concerning a neighborhood land-use issue that has attracted citywide interest – the proposed synagogue and school at 1301 Oxford St. 

The council adjourned Tuesday night’s meeting at 11:30 p.m. after four-and-one-half hours of public testimony from nearly 60 supporters and opponents of the 32,000-square-foot project, proposed by the Beth El Congregation. Mayor Shirley Dean said there are still more than 100 people who have signed up to address the council when the hearing is continued on June 26.  

Speakers included neighbors of the proposed site, Beth El members and representatives from religious and environmental organizations. 

“I don’t think we have ever had this number of speakers,” Dean said on Wednesday. “Usually we are able to complete a public hearing in the course of one meeting.” 

Another public hearing, related to a Beth El appeal of the denial of an Alteration Permit, has yet to be scheduled.  

“We won’t be able to schedule that until we get a good idea when this hearing will finish up,” she said. 

A council decision on both appeals was scheduled for July 24, the last meeting before the council takes summer recess. Now, some councilmembers are saying that a decision isn’t likely until after September or later.  

“I’d be surprised if we are finished with this by Christmas,” said Councilmember Polly Armstrong. 

The fire marshal closed access to the second-floor City Council Chambers a half-hour before the hearing began because the chambers were already filled beyond its 140-person capacity. The closure left more than 100 people in the building’s entrance way and nearly 200 people outside on the stairs and front lawn. Speakers were placed outside the building and a television was set up at the stairwell inside the building so those who couldn’t get in could follow the proceedings. 

Councilmember Dona Spring said she has seen huge numbers of people come out for budget issues but has never seen so many turn out for a land-use issue. 

“I tried to get the hearing moved to the Berkeley Community Theater so we could accommodate everyone,” she said. “That way we wouldn’t have had to lock people out, which is so unfair.” 

Spring said the city manager discouraged use of the theater because the City Council Chambers were already set up for sound and video recording. 

The public hearing is part of a Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association appeal of the Zoning Adjustments Board’s approval of a use permit to build the synagogue. The appeal was filed by LOCCNA attorney Sharon Duggan. The appeal was signed by representatives from 10 environmental organizations including the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Golden Gate Audubon Society and the International Rivers Network. 

Project opponents are concerned about irreparable damage to Codornices Creek, the project’s size and traffic problems caused by school programs, religious meetings and social events that will take place at the synagogue. They are also concerned about alterations to the 2-acre site, which is a city landmark. 

Beth El members counter they have taken neighbors concerns and the design reflects a project that is sensitive to the creek, neighborhood and the historic status of the site.  

Religious leaders who spoke if favor of Beth El’s project included the Rev. Marvis Peoples from the Liberty Hill Baptist Church and the Rev. Dr. Frankie Moore, who read a statement from Mark Wilson, pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church. 

The City Council requested opposing sides work with professional mediator Peter Bluhon. The parties agreed and have already taken part in two meetings. A third meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.  

Bluhon said both sides have requested the results of the meetings remain confidential. “Both sides are doing something that’s a very important step in the mediation process,” Bluhon said. “They are clearly and completely describing the concerns, needs and goals they have for their respective interests.” 

Dean reminded council and the audience that if a compromise is reached during mediation, the entire public hearing process will begin again.  

The public hearing related to the LOCCNA appeal will continue on June 26, at the City Council Chambers, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way at 7 p.m.