Many Homeowners Pan Creeks Ordinance Recommendations By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Friday March 24, 2006

Though “balance” was the buzzword at Wednesday’s joint meeting between the Creeks Task Force and the Planning Commission, creeks faction wars were as heated as ever. 

The object of the division: Berkeley’s Creeks Ordinance, a 1989 policy, amended in 2002, that forbids additions and rebuilding on property within 30 feet of a creek, whether open or interred. Exceptions are made for structures destroyed by disaster. 

Many homeowners want fewer restrictions on development near creeks, while environmentalists want more stringent policies. 

Charged with drafting suggested amendments to the ordinance, the 15-member Creeks Task Force released preliminary recommendations Wednesday, under the premise of “trying to strike a balance between the needs of property owners and the environment,” said task force member Phil Price. 

The task force is comprised of community members and city council and city commission appointees.  

Recommendations include the following:  

Vertical property expansion within 30 feet of a creek is allowed on a case-by-case basis; expanding up to five feet into the 30-foot setback is permitted with an administrative use permit; more than five feet into the setback and homeowners must seek a variance; rebuilding after loss is allowed and property owners can build new structures within 30 feet of an open creek but only with a variance. 

Further details were spelled out at a task force meeting Monday, such as regulations on non-roofed structures—decks, patios and bridges, for instance—and terms of general watershed management. 

A majority of the task force agreed to the recommendations, which garnered significant, but not unqualified, support from creeks advocates. 

“What I have read sounds pretty good,” said Igor Skaredoff, a Martinez resident and member of the Urban Creeks Council. “. . . You are indeed getting pretty close to that balance.” 

Many homeowners were less enthusiastic. 

“Property owners feel we’ve been tacitly acknowledged and substantively ignored,” said a representative of Neighbors on Urban Creeks, a community group that champions homeowners’ rights.  

A central element of their discontent is perceived limitations on rebuilding existing structures. 

Under the proposed ordinance, homeowners are allowed to repair and renovate their homes in the existing footprint per standard zoning regulations. This includes seeking an administrative use permit if more than half a building is destroyed. 

Many worry that the bureaucratic rigmarole involved in obtaining a use permit will thwart rebuilding efforts all together. However, the same zoning rules apply to all buildings, not just those adjacent to creeks. 

Homeowners expressed concern, nonetheless.  

“The power to grant use permits is the power to deny one,” said former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean. 

Environmentalists countered that a buffer zone is necessary to protect the city’s natural waterways. 

“I value the creeks of Berkeley exceedingly highly. Private property rights do not trump the creeks,” said Chris Kroll, a Berkeley resident. “Creeks are natural processes which need to be respected. You need to keep development back.” 

But the most hotly contested issue of the evening—still unresolved on the task force—was whether to include creek culverts in the ordinance. 

Berkeley is home to a byzantine system of underground waterways that has been cause for much concern among homeowners, many who aren’t sure whether they live on or near a creek culvert. Others who are aware they live near culverts claim they weren’t enlightened to that fact until after they purchased their homes. They fear that strict regulations dictated by the ordinance diminish their property values.  

“I urge you to exclude culverts from the ordinance,” said Berkeley resident Scott Rosenberg. “It makes no sense, there’s no logic to it, there’s no fairness to it.” 

To Elyce Judith, it’s entirely logical. A creek culvert is eroding her neighbor’s house, she said, and including creek culverts in the ordinance ensures proper watershed management.  

Judith was one of few creekside property owners who expressed support for a strong Creeks Ordinance Wednesday. By and large, homeowners at the public hearing supported a less rigorous ordinance—or no ordinance at all.  

Michael Tripp advocated abolishing the ordinance. “No compromises, no responses, no ordinance,” he said. 

The Creeks Task Force will shore up its recommendations April 3 then pass them off to the Planning Commission. Commissioners will consider ordinance modifications until April 26 to meet a May 1 City Council-imposed deadline. The City Council has final say over amendments..