Creeks Task Force Reports

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 07, 2006

Updating the Creeks Ordinance, the project a task force has been struggling with for about 18 months, is aimed at maintaining the city’s natural waterways and surrounding habitat. 

But it is no less about people’s property rights—how close to a stream can a property owner build and how high? What if a structure is destroyed—how is it to be rebuilt? And does one look at open creeks in the same way as those encased in concrete culverts? 

Although the Creeks Task Force finally presented its “completed” recommendations to the Planning Commission Wednesday night, the 15-member body will continue to tweak its proposals. And community groups will keep vigilant. The Planning Commission will vote on the final Creeks Task Force recommendations April 26. The vote is advisory to the City Council. 

The commission’s discussion of the task force recommendations seemed to raise more questions than answers. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman wanted to better define what a ‘creek’ is. 

“The definition of ‘creeks’ is fuzzy,” he said. There are swills, depressions and other ways of referring to them, he added, which could impact how the creeks and building around them are regulated. 

“What’s the definition of a culvert?” he asked. And what is the difference between a storm water culvert and a creek culvert?  

Furthermore, Poschman wanted to know if building on an open creek is more restrictive than on a culverted creek, what is the incentive for homeowners to daylight their creeks? 

One of the most contentious questions is how close to an open creek one can build. The task force is recommending the existing law’s mandate for new buildings —30 feet away from the creek. 

However, speaking at the Planning Commission’s public comment period, Barbara Allen, a member of Neighbors on Urban Creeks, said the proposal fails to address the steepness of the banks and the shape and size of the lot. 

The building rules should be “on a case by case basis,” she said. 

Planning Commissioner Harry Pollack noted the 30-foot setback is same in the hills and flatlands, though conditions are different.  

Other Creeks Task Force recommendations include: 

• The city ahould look for funds to help homeowners with costs related to maintenance and repair of creeks and creek culverts. 

• Creek culverts should be regulated similarly to storm water culverts. 

• Rebuilding a structure after a loss on the same footprint is permitted. 

• An environmental analysis is necessary if building higher.  

Former Mayor Shirley Dean, also a member of Neighbors on Urban Creeks, raised the question of the homeowner who unknowingly buys property with a culverted creek, which had happened to her. The regulations would put this homeowner at a disadvantage, she said. 

Planning staff argued that the city had notified some 2,000 homeowners who live on open and culverted creeks. A property list appears on the Planning Department web site. 

During the public comment period, one person challenged Planning Chair Helen Burke, a member of the Creeks Task Force, saying she had a conflict of interest and shouldn’t serve on the body, because her home is on a creek. Another person challenged two unnamed members of the task force, saying they are professionally involved with creeks and able to profit from their recommendations. 

Planning Director Dan Marks responded, saying because task forces are advisory, their members do not have the same conflict of interest regulations as commissioners. 

“I’ll double check with the city attorney,” he promised..