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Creeks Task Force Set to Approve Work Plan By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday April 01, 2005

The task force charged with rewriting Berkeley’s contentious creeks law is scheduled to approve a plan Monday that will ask the city to grant it up to $200,000. 

Last year, the city’s 15-year-old creek law that restricted new construction along creekside properties erupted into a political maelstrom when the city released maps showing that roughly 2,400 property owners were affected. 

The law, as amended in 2002, forbade property owners living within 30 feet of an open or culverted creek from adding on to their homes or buildings, or, as interpreted by city officials, from rebuilding them in the event of an earthquake or fire. The council amended the law last November to allow property owners to rebuild after a disaster, but left other outstanding issues to the task force to resolve.  

The draft plan calls on the task force to begin its work by determining which waterways will be regulated as creeks, how far new construction should be set aside from the waterways, and what type of structures should be permitted. After a consensus is reached on those issues, the plan calls for the task force to consider opportunities for unearthing creeks that have been driven underground in concrete culverts and establishing policies to manage creek watersheds. 

The proposed $200,000 funding request is only a third of the amount first proposed by city officials to pay for consultants to research setback requirements that would better reflect the watersheds surrounding 75,000 feet of creeks in the city. 

With Berkeley facing an $8.3 structural budget deficit for the coming year and no money budgeted for the creeks effort, Planning Director Dan Marks urged the task force to keep expectations low. 

“There should be some assessment of existing conditions,” Marks said. “As far as in depth studies, that would cost far more than what the council is thinking.” 

Much of the technical data the task force will use will come from studies done in other cities and past city reports, said task force member Tom Kelly. Although the task force will seek to recommend more flexible guidelines on setbacks required for construction along creeks, task force chair Helen Burke said that any new rules would be somewhat arbitrary. 

On the budget question, the task force is still debating whether to devote all of its allotted money to consultant work or whether it should spend $100,000 on a creeks coordinator position to amass data and oversee the implementation of the new law. 

The task force’s current plan is ambitious. Although it contains provisions for the task force to scale back the scope of work as it learns more about creeks, a few members last week unsuccessfully pushed for it to focus its concerns more narrowly on the issues of setbacks and building requirements. 

“To me it looks overwhelming. I would like to see a document we could actually do,” said task force member Jana Olson.  

The task force is also considering whether to study several Berkeley creek watersheds or just study one as a sample case. 

If the work plan is approved by both the Planning Commission and the City Council, the task force will reconvene in May to begin collecting data.