Public Comment

Commentary: A Simple Solution for the Creeks Task Force

By Jerry Landis
Tuesday April 18, 2006

Although we live in a dense urban environment, I think we all support conservation. Fortunately, our predecessors did as well. They’ve given us the East Bay Regional Parks—90,000 acres of natural habitat laced with miles of creeks. And here in Berkeley we have access to natural creeks in many public parks and on the UC campus. But these are urban creeks flowing through urban neighborhoods and must be viewed differently from those in natural preserves. 

I enjoy hiking. Over the years I’ve hiked Tilden Park, Briones, Diablo, Sibley, Chabot, and more. To minimize driving in these energy-conscious times, I step out my front door twice a week and hike a few miles around the North Berkeley hills—quiet streets lined with ever-surprising architecture and interconnected by hidden paths. My favorite place is John Hinkle Park where Blackberry Creek forms a natural falls over a stone face, across the trail, and down a ravine—a beautiful secluded spot. Over the years I’ve hiked through that park hundreds of times, but apart from special events when people were gathered for a performance or a picnic, in all those times I’ve seen another person on the trail perhaps three or four times.  

Our creek advocate friends remind us that the creeks are important to our quality of life, and I agree with them—but they should not delude themselves, or try to delude us, into believing that most Berkeley residents are yearning for a glimpse of a creek. When they appeal to us to “save our creeks”—ask them when they last took the time to explore a creek in Berkeley. Most people don’t even know where the creeks are—much less care about riparian habitat, riprap, or a few stray fish. They’re quite content to leave it to those of us who live on the creeks to pick the trash out of them and make sure they don’t threaten our homes or our neighbors’ homes. We’ve been doing it for years. 

And what do we ask in return? Just to make repairs and improvements to an existing structure, as well as reasonable additions, so long as none of these intrude further into a defined creek setback, and to rebuild a structure, when necessary, to its original form.  

It was the issue of rebuilding that provoked a massive confrontation of the City Council by homeowners two years ago and led to the creation of the Creeks Task Force, which is now recommending revisions of the Creeks Ordinance to the Planning Commission and City Council. Since this contention has been widely publicized, I expect that it will continue until it is resolved by a revision of the Zoning Ordinance as well, which also places restrictions on rebuilding. Homeowners will not be content until we have a Municipal Code, including a Creeks Ordinance and a Zoning Ordinance, that asserts that any structure on private property that is damaged or destroyed for any reason may be rebuilt by right (with no Zoning review) to the same height and bulk and on the original footprint.  

Another contentious issue is that of culverted creeks. Many culverts predate any documentation and have been hidden and unknown on private properties through many owners. They are a fact of life that The City must deal with now that they are in decay. Those culverts carry the runoff from the entire watershed and thus serve the entire community, whether they cut through private property or not. The city must accept the responsibility for locating, maintaining, repairing, and, with the property owner’s consent, daylighting those culverts. Since the daylighting process is intrusive and disruptive, it must be done, when desired, at the property owner’s initiative.  

There is debate about whether the issue of culverts should or should not be part of the Creeks Ordinance. That’s the wrong question. Regulations for open creeks and for culverted creeks should be separate and equally important parts of an overall watershed management plan. They pose different problems and involve different authorities, but they are obviously related because culverts and open creeks interface with each other. Addressing them separately under a watershed umbrella will allow cross-referencing of regulations where appropriate. 

It has been suggested that an ordinance for open creeks could be stated in three sentences: 

1. You may not allow trash or pollutants to go into a creek. 

2. No additional culverts will be permitted. 

3. No additional roofed construction or impermeable surfaces will be permitted within 30’ of the centerline of a creek or within 10’ of a culvert.  

That may look too simple, but very little more is needed. The Creeks Task Force was heavily packed with appointees who are closely associated with creek advocacy organizations, and most of the detailed and sometimes arcane language they’ve proposed for the ordinance can be replaced by common sense and reliance on a suggested watershed guidebook—an excellent task force idea. 

Berkeley faces serious and costly problems: collapsing culverts, crumbling streets, loss of commercial revenue, a bloated work force, and a traffic control system fifty years out of date. The real question for the Planning Commission and the City Council is this: Will you allow a small group of creek extremists and their Sierra Club sponsors to pressure you into spending our resources on their obsession? 


Jerry Landis is a Berkeley resident.