Page One

Major Changes Afoot in Land Use Laws By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday January 03, 2006

City officials, commissioners and the public spent much of 2005 not only debating the politics of development and land use but formulating proposals for new laws governing both new development and existing construction. 

One of the thorniest issues confronting Berkeley policymakers is the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which has become a weapon of last resort for opponents of major construction projects. 

Developers claim the law is abused by NIMBY types, while landmarks advocates argue the ordinance is a last refuge against projects that threaten the historic character of neighborhoods. 

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, the council-appointed panel that administers the ordinance, spent two years revising the existing law, while the Planning Commission drew up its own version over a period of months, which it approved on May 25. 

Mayor Tom Bates introduced his own proposals on Nov. 30, and the City Council has scheduled a Jan. 17 workshop to consider the three alternatives. 


Other revisions 

The city is also considering revisions to other controversial codes. 

Members of the Zoning Adjustments Board, frustrated that city regulations would have allowed the so-called Seagate Building downtown to climb to 14 stories under provisions that grant bonus space for projects with art space and inclusionary units at a reduced price to low-income qualified buyers, formed a committee to look at the bonuses. The panel held its first meeting May 11. 

Repeated complaints about the city’s by-right addition ordinance has also led the city to ask planning commissioners to come up with revisions. Under existing law homeowners can add up to 500-square-feet to their homes without a use permit that would require notification of neighbors. 

The issue first surfaced at an April 14 meeting of the Zoning Adjustments Board, and in October, City Councilmembers Betty Olds and Gordon Wozniak offered separate proposals for revisions. The council referred the matter to the Planning Commission on Dec. 13. 

The city passed a “soft story” ordinance in October, requiring owners of residential structures with seismically unsafe ground floors—usually parking areas—to submit engineering reports on their buildings and notify tenants that their buildings are vulnerable in a major temblor. 

The city as yet has no mechanism for mandating retrofits, a project it will consider as the new year unfolds. 

The council has also created a task force to develop proposals to revise the city’s creeks ordinance, which regulates construction on and over the city’s many creeks—many of which flow through aging buried culverts. 

For owners of 2,400 homes and other structures directly affected, the issue is determining what they can and can’t do if there’s a creek within 30 feet of buildings they own.›