Overriding the pleas of preservationists, Berkeley Planning Commissioners passed changes to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) Wednesday night.
The controversial measure now heads to the City Council for a hearing on July 12.
The measure gives the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) the power to deny demolitions of designated historical resources, including those designated structures of merit.
The measure simultaneously strips the LPC’s control over so-called “minor alterations” to the exteriors of structures of merit and vests the authority with city staff.
Structures of merit are structures of historical significance that have been altered but still retain many of their original design features, while “landmarks” are more pristine.
The lesser classification was entitled to the same protections as “landmarks” under the current ordinance, including the requirement that all changes must be approved by the LPC.
The Planning Commission version also weakens protections for structures of merit under the California Environment Quality Act, reducing the need for a detailed Environmental Impact Report for demolitions or major alterations.
As adopted, a city zoning officer can approve “minor alterations” without the right of appeal to the LPC unless the city official chooses to refer it to the commission. Just what constitutes a minor alteration isn’t spelled out.
Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman proposed an amendment that would allow appeals of proposed alterations to the Landmarks Commission, but it failed on a tie (four-four) vote.
“This is truly appalling,” said LPC member Patricia Dacey during the public comment session at the start of the meeting. “It is a transfer of power from the commissions and City Council to the bureaucrat. Changes to structures of merit will be made on the say-so of zoning officers with no right of appeal, and city staff have shown themselves to be no friends of landmarks.”
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association President Wendy Markle declared in a letter presented at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, “The broad stroke of these provisions is to turn the intent and practice of the LPO away from the citizen, the neighborhood, and the of a community-involved commission to the developer, the paid planning staff, and outside developer.”
The measure also introduces a new procedure that allows property owners to apply for a “Request for Determination” (RFD) to ascertain whether or not a 50-year-old-plus building potentially qualifies as a landmark.
Owners of single-family homes and duplexes who want a determination and aren’t planning major alterations or demolitions will only have to submit a photograph of the dwelling as visible from the street, the name of the architect (if available) and the construction date.
Owners of larger and commercial buildings will have to submit a detailed historical analysis which contains information similar to that required now for a landmarking application.
If owners are planning alteration or demolition, then RFDs are mandatory and must contain a full, detailed analysis.
Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman offered a successful amendment that gave the LPC the right to continue non-project RFDs an additional two meetings beyond the two proposed by his commission to decide whether or not to initiate a landmark proposal on the property. After that, interested members have an additional 10 days to gather the 25 needed signatures to initiate a landmark application on their own.
For RFDs with construction, the time limits are imposed by the Permit Streamlining Act, the original impetus for the LPC’s long-term project to revise the ordinance. The Planning Commission took six months to mull over what had taken years of effort by the LPC.
Two other Poschman amendments failed on a 4-4 vote, the result of the non-appearance of Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, whose absence at commission meetings has been more frequent than his attendance.
When it came time to vote on the whole package, commissioner Sara Shumer said she couldn’t consider voting for the measure because of the tie votes.
“I am perfectly comfortable voting on something where the majority voted in favor of the provisions, but I’m not comfortable voting for things where amendments failed on a 4-4 vote. I would be comfortable voting for those things that got majority support, but this is not kosher,” she said.
Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan reminded Shumer that motions on an ordinance were all or nothing.
Colleague David Stoloff, appointee of Mayor Tom Bates, said Shumer’s concerns could be addressed in a letter transmitted to the council along with the ordinance.
“I’m planning to vote for it because this has been with us a long time,” said Helen Burke.
“This will strengthen preservation in this town,” said Chair Harry Pollack.
When it came time for the final vote only Poschman and Joe Fireman sided with Shumer and the ordinance was approved on a 5-3 vote.
The measure now heads to the City Council in time for a decision before the council takes its annual summer break, as Mayor Bates has been urging. f