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Landmarks Commission Requests Outside Expert for Law Revisions By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday July 01, 2005

In a rare display of unanimity, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Monday rejected both its own and the Planning Commission’s revisions to the city’s landmarks ordinance, calling instead for an outside expert to aid in drafting a new proposal. 

Both versions are scheduled to go to the City Council for a public hearing on July 12 with a vote slated a week later. 

The Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) revision process had generated a firestorm of controversy, in part because developers see it as a tool for derailing or delaying projects and in part because preservationists see a concerted effort to chip away at protections for structures they see as esthetically and historically significant. 

The ostensible reason for a change in the ordinance is to make city law compliant with the state’s Permit Streamlining Act (PSA), which is designed to ensure that building projects aren’t delayed interminably in the bureaucratic processes. 

“We had a long talk about how we were tasked with resolved PSA problems, and we realized they could be solved with just a couple of words,” said LPC member Patricia Dacey. 

The City of Los Angeles landmarks ordinance is virtually identical to Berkeley’s, she said, except for wording on decision to bar demolitions of landmarked buildings. Where Berkeley’s ordinance refers to “suspension of demolitions,” the L.A. ordinance refers to “denials.” 

Bringing Berkeley’s ordinance into compliance with that of the City of Los Angeles would solve the problems raised when revisions were ordered, she said. 

Dacey said commissioners had devoted extensive time to master three separate pieces of legislation: The city’s existing ordinance, the LPO’s own revised ordinance and the revised ordinance proposed by the planning commission. 

“It was an extraordinarily time-consuming and insanely difficult process, and I went to Boalt,” she said, referring to the UC Berkeley law school. “It was clear that everyone on the commission had done the same.” 

Dacey said she disputed the contention of the city attorney’s office that PSA problems demanded a revision of the ordinance. 

Commissioners agreed that the best way to resolve the issue wasn’t through the often-contradictory city commissions but through reliance on outside expertise. 

“We are asking to retain a recognized expert in preservation ordinances, and there are funds available for this purpose from the State Office of Historic Preservation,” she said. 

LPC members Jill Korte, the current chair, and now former member Becky O’Malley had applied for and received a state grant for just that purpose, but the grant was recalled after Planning Manager Mark Rhoades stated that the city couldn’t afford the matching staff time required, said member Carrie Olson. Olson noted that the Planning Commission’s revisions would required the addition of a new full-time staff position, the same thing Rhoades had earlier rejected. 

Dacey said the commission would like to reapply for the grant “because the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act are so complex.” 

“We have been misserved by staff and the city attorney in providing guidance in understanding conflicts with the PSA, and seeking the services of an acknowledged expert seems the best way to go.” 

Dacey and the other commissioners were particularly concerned about the Planning Commission’s proposal to strip the LPC of say over the demolition of Structures of Merit, the lesser of the two categories of officially designated historic resources. 

“The Planning Commission suggested that a zoning officer make all decisions about structures of merit, and that those decisions would be final, without appeal. But a zoning officer may have no expertise or interest in historical structures,” she said. 

“Clearly, this is intended to grease the wheels of real estate speculators by removing the decision from the hands of the one commission that must by law include individuals with some expertise in historic preservation.” 

Dacey also noted that the Planning Commission’s revision calls for a lot more work from city staff because their proposal calls for “requests for determinations” from developers and property owners that would require a ruling on whether or not a particular property had the potential to qualify as a landmark. 

A negative decision would bar the filing of a landmarking application by third parties for a year, but would be voided if a request for a development permit were filed with the city. 

Applications would require even more work from city staff and the LPC at a time when budgetary pressures are forcing the city to scale back on commission meetings and staffing, Dacey said—noting that even the LPC’s proposals would do the same. 

“There’s never been a historical resources survey of the city, as required by current law, because the staff says it doesn’t have the time or resources, but the Planning Commission proposal would give them a huge amount of new work,” she said. 

Dacey noted that the city Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance and the LPO resulted from huge development pressures in the 1960’s similar to those underway today. “The General Plan states clearly that the more development pressure there is, the greater the need to protect our existing neighborhoods,” she said. 

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) has vowed to sue if the city revises the LPO without first completing a full Environmental Impact Report detailing the impact of the revisions. 

The Planning Commission’s split vote adopting their own proposal contrasts sharply with the LPO’s unanimity. 

Planning Commission chair Harry Pollack declined to attend a lengthy meeting held yesterday on the ordinance that was attended by Rhoades and his boss Dan Marks, Giselle Sorensen (the planning staffer assigned to the LPO), Deputy City Attorney Zac Cowan, LPC Commissioners Korte and Olson and Lucinda Woodward of the state preservation office. 

Olson scoffed at Cowan’s contention yesterday that the Planning Commission’s Request for Determination was designed with the single-family homeowner in mind. “It’s designed for the real estate speculator,” she said, pointing to the planning commission’s proviso that the same owner could only file requests on two different properties within the same six-month period. 

She noted that the proviso could easily be evaded by forming a limited liability corporation for each property—something that’s being done with most multifamily and commercial properties in Berkeley in recent years.