I attended the public hearing on the Berkeley Creek Ordinance on Wednesday and was taken aback by the degree of fear and anxiety over the ordinance. The fear is based on the mistaken belief that you could not rebuild your home to the same footprint and height after a disaster or fire. I cannot think of any instance where the Creek Ordinance prevented a home from being rebuilt. Nevertheless, the City Council passed Alternative No. 2 with some amendments to make that clear. When misconceptions are repeated frequently enough, it can give listeners a mistaken impression that the idea is true. This is reminiscent of FOX news.
The meeting was dominated by frightened property owners. However, several reasonable issues were raised by the participants. Some of these issues are not addressed by the ordinance and others need to be addressed by an updated ordinance and by city staff. Creeks and culverts are not unique to Berkeley. Other cities have had to deal with the same problems, and these cities have enacted newer creek ordinances which can be a model for us.
The intent of the ordinance is to protect and watersheds and creeks from new or further development, i.e.. not to add insult to injury. It encourages daylighting of creeks, whenever possible. This is not to create a utopian vision, but to provide quality improvement for basic flood control and public and private safety. It is an effort to prevent construction of new culverts and to protect creek corridors that are currently free of “civilized” encroachment. As far as I am concerned, property owners, such as the Friends Church who have an existing parking lot and playground over a culverted creek, should have no fear about rebuilding. This would not be the case if there was an open space and someone proposed building a parking lot over culverted creek. To many people, a creek out of sight, is out of mind. But, putting a creek in a culvert does not make it cease to exist. This may sound like a Zen concept, but whether you see the creek or not, it still exists.
Creeks are living. It is somewhat akin to the circulation of the human body. Like a bypass graft that circulates blood to parts of your body, a culvert sends water to other areas downstream to the bay, Sooner or later, and more likely sooner, we will pay for the lack of foresight by previous landowners and government who put in these old culverts in the first place. The system is aging and in need of repair. This brought up a separate issue, who is liable for a failed system. Will it be the private property owner, the city, or both? Can there be incentives for homeowners and landowners to rebuild in a more creek friendly manner? Should there be a tax measure? Bond is a four letter word. Another issue that was raised was that the city should have a better map to delineate the creeks and culverts to the best of its ability. Many homeowners were not only surprised by the ordinance, but surprised they were on a culverted creek.
If there is a disaster, one can rebuild, but it would make sense to check out whether the culvert was damaged. For the safety of the residents, it makes sense to check. Creek ordinance or not, does one think an insurance company would feel comfortable paying for a home rebuilt without checking the status of the culvert?
So there are many questions that need to be addressed. I support the formation of a Creek Task Force, comprised of representatives of involved stakeholders, including but not limited to creek and environmental advocates, homeowners and landowners, businesses, city staff including Public Works who will have to repair failed culverts and stormwater systems, California state and regulatory boards on water quality management, and hydrologists/scientists who can provide evidence based information. We would want people who are willing to listen to each other and want to work out a compromise that can protect our watersheds and address the concerns of homeowners, institutions, and businesses. A task force is far preferable to
the Planning Commission because there will be more diverse opinions at the table. The Planning Commission does not have the expertise to deal with the creeks. An independent task force would be less controversial than the Planning Commission. Berkeley’s creeks are more than a land use issue.