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City could raise price of public input

Matthew Artz
Saturday September 21, 2002

With Berkeley’s coffers low, Councilmember Betty Olds wants the city to reduce one of its more frustrating expenses: zoning appeals.  

The city spends about $1,300 handling each appeal to the Zoning Adjustment Board, which determines whether building proposals comply with city law. 

This week, City Council approved Olds’ plan to consider raising the $63 fee for people who live more than 300 feet from a proposed building or development. Residents within the 300-mile radius would still pay $63. 

“Some people are appealing for the sake of appealing,” Olds said. “City staff doesn’t have the manpower to deal with all the frivolous claims.” 

The $1,300 cost estimate includes 12 hours of staff research and administration work, or $109 an hour, to prepare a report for City Council that details an appeal’s merits, City Planner Mark Rhoades said. At any time, city planning staff is working on five to nine appeals, which prevents staff from addressing other work that may be more pressing, , Rhoades said. 

The chief of out-of-neighborhood appeals, Olds said, is Berkeley resident Howie Muir. An opponent of dense development, Muir has led a campaign to stop several multistory housing projects throughout the city. 

On July 23, City Council heard three appeals in which Muir protested new housing developments. Of the three, Muir lived two blocks from one development, but was more than a mile away from the other two. 

Muir said he understood council’s concern, but said that Olds’ suggestion was unfair and didn’t solve the problem: Berkeley’s zoning ordinance is too vague. Because city zoning laws are devoid of uniform standards for developments, developers and neighbors often disagree about how to interpret the laws.  

When the ZAB sides with developers, residents accuse the board of favoring developers. 

Muir added that the city’s refusal to set population density standards has exacerbated the problem. Because there are no clear limits on units a developer may put in an apartment complex, Muir said they have an incentive to build as many units as they can. 

“Developers are always pushing the envelope to do denser buildings,” he said. Such developments anger many Berkeley residents who think that dense developments in certain neighborhoods threaten the vitality of the city. 

If council passes an appeal fee hike, Muir said he would continue his appeals and might challenge the hike’s validity as well. 

“It implies that residents shouldn’t have a say in their own city,” said Muir, adding that Berkeley neighborhoods extend beyond the 300 foot threshold suggested by Olds. 

Rhoades, however thought the proposal was fair. 

“If you live 2 or 3 miles away it can’t possibly have the same effect as if you live in the neighborhood,” he said. 

The proposal is still a long way from approval. The ZAB, Planning Commission and Landmarks Preservation Commission will all discuss it before city staff offers council a plan next year.