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Controlled growth sought through height limits initiative

By Jamie Luck Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday April 18, 2002

Urban density and the future development of Berkeley are not only key issues in the upcoming mayoral and City Council elections, but are being taken straight to the people with a new initiative to reduce the height limits of buildings and amend existing zoning ordinances. 

The measure specifically targets “out-of-scale” developments - buildings with greater height, size, and number of units than the density limits imposed by Berkeley’s 1977 Master Plan, and reinforced by the more recent, non-binding General Plan. 

The measure claims that oversized buildings are environmentally detrimental and threaten the health and safety of residents. The increase in population density due to these large units adds pressure to an 



already overburdened infrastructure, increasing electric power, water, and emergency services needs, as well as exceeding the capacity of the current sewage system and adding to burgeoning traffic congestion. Aesthetic and health concerns include the blocking off of existing views and the reduction of natural light necessary for radiant heating and solar power collection. 

“The height limits are just to control the out-of-scale developments,” said initiative sponsor Martha Nicoloff. “As you can see through current project developments, the city politicos have already exceeded the General Plan limits without public hearing.” 

A study by the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) shows that developments approved over the last few years have consistently exceeded the guidelines suggested by the General Plan. At least 78 percent of the projects cited exceeded the limits through special permits, some by as much as four times the recommended units. 

“The rub is, the politicians have changed the plan to satisfy the public, but they don’t change the actual zoning ordinances to match the plan, still permitting height exceptions,” said Nicoloff. 

The measure would alter the zoning ordinance by lowering existing height limits, prohibiting the approval of variances to the limit, and outlawing the current practice of transferring development rights, which allows a developer to reduce the height of one project in exchange for increasing the height of another. 

A provision bound to satisfy hillside residents in danger of having their views blocked out, is one that requires any increase in building height over 28 feet to be subject to a public hearing before being approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board, rather than the current law which merely requires approval of the zoning officer. 

Even if the measure passes, it does not exclusively control height limits. A state law, which supercedes local zoning ordinances, grants developers a 25 percent size bonus to residential projects that have 20 percent of units designated as low income housing. 

If passed, the measure would remain in effect for 10 years, unless amended by a two-thirds vote of the city council.  

Berkeley is currently the third most congested city in Northern California, behind San Francisco and Daily City, with a density of 9,823 people per square mile. 

The measure, which has finally been approved by the city attorney after a series of drafts dating back to October, 2001, needs 3,000 signatures by June to make it on the November ballot. Volunteers will be gathering signatures at the BANA meeting on Sat., April 20 at Live Oak Park, 1301 Shattuck Ave., and through that afternoon at Berkeley’s Earth Day gathering.