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Cell towers rules changed, Southside timeline adopted

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Friday November 16, 2001

The Planning Commission took action on two controversial city issues during its meeting Wednesday night. 

The commission devised new rules for wireless telecommunications antennae and approved a one-year moratorium on office development in the West Berkeley mixed-use/light industrial district. 

In addition, the commission adopted a new timetable for the Southside Plan. 

The commission largely rejected a wireless telecommunications proposal written by concerned citizens. The citizen’s ordinance would have banned new antennae within a 200-foot radius of residential districts. 

Instead, it unanimously approved an ordinance drafted by city staff and heavily revised by Commissioner Gene Poschman. 

Under Poschman’s proposal, most new antennae would have to be approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board. Wireless services providers would have to demonstrate to the ZAB that the proposed antenna is necessary to provide service in an area, and that denying it would be a violation of federal law. 

On Friday, commission chair Rob Wrenn said the Poschman compromise, while not ideal, was in the spirit typical of Berkeley procedure. 

“There’s two ways you can do these kinds of things,” he said. “You can institute really tight rules, or you can make people jump through hoops to convince you on a case-by-case basis.” 

The latter – a method Wrenn called “flexible, but with scrutiny” – allowed for more citizen input on particular projects, he said. 

The commission also rejected city staff’s suggestion that antennae be allowed, under certain circumstances, to exceed the maximum height limit allowed in zoning districts.  

Like all Planning Commission actions, the proposal is only a recommendation to the City Council, which may further refine it or reject it altogether when it hears the matter in the upcoming weeks. 

The other big item on the commission’s calendar – the moratorium on offices in the West Berkeley MU-LI district – passed by a vote of 5-3. 

The commission received a study from a MU-LI subcommittee, composed of Commissioners Poschman, Zelda Bronstein, John Curl and Betty Hicks. The subcommitee’s report recommended that the commission approve the moratorium in substantially the same form as the commission’s January resolution on the matter. 

After reviewing the commssion’s first attempt to pass the moratorium, the City Council asked it to hold further public hearings and consider an exemption for spaces of under 5,000 square feet. 

The subcommittee report, which was adopted by the full commission on Wednesday, did not allow for such an exemption. The report stated that the commission had heard from many artists and artisans – categories that are classified as “light industrial” under the West Berkeley Plan – who said that they could use spaces under 5,000 square feet even if traditional industry could not. 

The new moratorium would, however, allow light industrial businesses to convert some of their space to offices if the offices are designed to support the manufacturing component of the business. 

Commissioners Hicks, Gordon Wozniak and David Tabb voted against the moratorium. Commissioner Susan Wengraf was absent at Wednesday’s meeting. 

The only other topic heard at Wednesday’s meeting was a status report on the Southside Plan, which the commission and planning staff have been working on for the last three and a half years. 

The commission unanimously adopted a proposal by chair Rob Wrenn that would define the Southside Plan as the commission’s top priority for the first half of 2002.  

Wrenn handed out a timetable that he hoped would serve as a guideline for the commission’s work on the plan. The timetable, which called for public release of the latest draft of the plan by the end of this month and completion of the plan by the end of June 2002, was also adopted. 

Several speakers during the public comment period urged the commission to complete work on the plan, push city staff to release its latest draft to the public and resist efforts by the University of California to unduly influence the plan’s direction. 

“I have never in my long political life participated in a process that was so fair and so open,” said Becky O’Malley. “Please finish the Southside Plan as we, the citizens, started it.”