Creek Ordinance Widely Misunderstood: By JULIET LAMONT and PHIL PRICE

Tuesday October 05, 2004

Matthew Artz’ article “Owners Can Rebuild Near Creeks and Culverts,” (Daily Planet, Oct. 1-4) focused on the contentious nature of the Sept. 28 public hearing. Readers may remain unaware of some underlying details and issues. 

The hearing was packed with homeowners and creek advocates who were all in favor of allowing rebuilding after disasters. The creek supporters in attendance have always advocated this position, and publicly stated this as a major recommendation in a presentation made to City Council last March. But we also advocate the protection and restoration of our creeks and watersheds, because we believe that this is the responsible environmental action for homeowners and the city alike. 

Unfortunately, the majority of the hearing attendees had been led to serious misconceptions about the nature of the Berkeley Creek Ordinance. Many seemed to think that the ordinance exists in a vacuum in Berkeley, while the fact is that state regulations are getting more and more stringent with respect to water quality, creeks, and watersheds. We’ll have to adhere to these regulations, whether we want to or not. Moreover, city after city—and county after county—have passed ordinances in recent years that far surpass Berkeley’s in their stringency and sophistication about creek and watershed protection. We’re well behind the curve now—not ahead of it. 

City staff made an excellent presentation at the hearing, explaining the many reasons that it’s important to protect our creeks and to avoid building close to culverts. Building too close to creeks can catalyze bank erosion and failure, while culverts can exacerbate flooding. Culverts fail over time, causing costly and potentially catastrophic damage if buildings are built close to them, while damaging water quality and wildlife habitat. This is painfully obvious in the Strawberry Creek case currently being fought in courts, which involves a failing culvert on North Valley Street. Building new structures over or near culverts creates a no-win situation for homeowners, the city, and for creeks. 

As communities, we regulate our water, our air, our building sizes, and we implement fire and safety codes—both to protect and benefit individuals, as well as our communities and environment at large. Berkeley’s Creek Ordinance provides important protections to the environment, to homeowners, and to the city. Before the ordinance was passed, construction near creeks and culverts was common; the costs of these ill-conceived projects will be borne far into the future by homeowners and by the city, which faces at least tens of millions of dollars in expenses to remedy these problems, and perhaps much more. All city taxpayers should be grateful for the ordinance’s success at limiting these costs, no matter how they feel about the additional benefits to the environment. 

We believe that revisions can be made to the Creek Ordinance that will help homeowners, protect the city from future liabilities, and protect the vital ecological assets that are our creeks. Hopefully, now that the City Council has reaffirmed that the ordinance will not prevent people from rebuilding after disasters, we can move beyond fear, and into substantive, thoughtful discussions about how to improve and update the ordinance to reflect the expansive knowledge now existing about the importance of creek health to water quality, flood control, and habitat restoration. Many people see our creeks and watersheds as positive, wonderful treasures in our cities. These treasures deserve our careful stewardship. 

We urge the City Council to create a truly independent, multi-stakeholder Creeks Task Force that will look at the many issues surrounding our creeks, and develop recommendations and innovative funding ideas so critically needed to address the interests and concerns of all residents of the city.