Landmarks Panel Frustrated With Planning Staff Delays, Omissions: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday September 17, 2004

Frustrated Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) members Monday night blasted city planning staff for failing to forward the commission’s critical comments to Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) members before they voted on a controversial project in a newly created city historic district. 

They also expressed outrage at staff’s late submissions of key documents on the issue. 

Complaints over last-minute submissions have been common, and Planning Director Dan Marks has blamed the delays on short staffing in his department. He told a recent ZAB meeting that he’s now fully staffed and delays should be significantly reduced in the future. 

The immediate cause of Monday’s LPC concern was a small developer’s plans to convert two small Victorian cottages—one significantly altered from its original form—into duplexes. 

The dwellings sit in the heart of the recently landmarked Sisterna Historic District in West Berkeley. 

Neighbors who reside or work in the district are passionate advocates of protecting the area from encroaching development. Neal Blumenfeld, who owns a restored Victorian next door to one of the would-be duplexes, appeared before the commission with other neighbors Monday. 

In earlier meetings, commissioners twice agreed that developer Gary Feiner’s plans were out of proportion with the other homes in the district and would change the buildings so much that they would detract from the historic character of the neighborhood. 

Feiner was scheduled to offer a third revision Monday, but he notified city planning staff last week that he wasn’t finished and asked for a continuance until the next commission meeting on Oct. 4. 

One problem facing commissioners and neighbors is that the Permit Streamlining Act—a state law setting strict limits on the time local governments have to process builder applications—gives the city only until Oct. 27 to act on Feiner’s plans before they are automatically approved. 

The other problem is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which sets its own timelines for discovering potential environment impacts and formulating plans to alleviate them. 

Gisele Sorensen, the city planning staffer assigned to the LPC, said Feiner had verbally agreed to a 30-day delay, which would extend the deadline until Nov. 26. But she’d seen nothing in writing before the meeting. 

By Thursday, the extension had been filed, according to commissioner member Leslie Emmington Jones. 

Monday was the commission’s first meeting since Zoning Adjustments Board members voted Aug. 25 to issue a key pre-construction mitigated negative declaration (MND), sparing Feiner the more rigorous, costly and time-consuming environmental impact report sought by neighbors and preservationists. 

LPC secretary and city planner Gisele Sorensen said ZAB had been forced to act because of a California Environmental Quality Act deadline two days later, requiring the city to define and act on environmental concerns within a certain amount of time. 

Seventeen days earlier, the LPC had passed without dissent a resolution finding particular fault with the declaration in the planning staff’s impact statement finding that the project did not “substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings.” 

LPC members had repeatedly found Feiner’s plans to be proportionately and architecturally out of character with surrounding homes, and the resolution called for settling their concerns with the visual element through mapping out the specifics in discussions including Feiner, concerned neighbors and property-owners and commission members. 

The motion also called for a landscaping plan, an elevation showing how the homes blended with the streetscape and a neighborhood map. 

But that commission’s pleas never made it into the final MND approved by ZAB, a fact that rankled several commissioners, especially Jones, who declared: “Now, with the Permit Streamlining Act, we’re backed up against the wall. This happens project after project. 

“I went to the ZAB meeting, and then I read the staff report and I was appalled. The staff report didn’t even mention the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s concerns,” said the visibly angry commissioner. “(ZAB members) didn’t get our resolution. They could have amended” the declaration. 

“I don’t understand the problem,” said commission secretary and city planner Gisele Sorensen. “I didn’t think that a staff report goes into detail.” 

“I do want to be correct,” said Jones. “Maybe I can rewrite it, bringing up some of the points left out. The history has been ground out of the report and we still don’t have a plan on the table.” 

“If you feel the alterations are not sufficient, you don’t have to approve,” Sorensen replied. 

The commissioner replied, “There should have been time,” the plan should be respectful to its impact on the neighborhood. 

Adam Weiss—on the last day of his tenure on the commission—said he understood Jones’s concern at not having the commission’s arguments heard by ZAB, adding, “We have no authority over ZAB.” 

“I watched the ZAB meeting, and I don’t recall any discussion about the resolution,” said commissioner Steven Winkel. “It’s going to be important that we get that time extension.” 

“I want to get a sense of the commission if this item is important enough to set a special meeting,” said LPC Chair Jill Korte. “I feel it is.” 

“So do I,” said Jones. 

Winkle said he’d prefer an extended deadline, but if it wasn’t granted, he’d agree to a special session. 

“We have the ability to hold him hostage,” said Weiss. “The Zoning Adjustment Board either didn’t read the comments the neighbors sent or they didn’t care. They weren’t included in the report submitted to the Zoning Adjustment Board. 

“City staff doesn’t understand historic districts,” he said. “They understand development.” 

“We still don’t have today a design in front of us that we’re working with, we’re at the very end of the state cycle,” Jones said. 

“We should have design guidelines or uniform principles,” Korte added. 

Commissioners then voted unanimously to continue their discussion Oct. 4.›