City Seeks Deadline Extension For Contentious Creeks Ordinance

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday April 25, 2006

Time is running out for the Planning Commission to officially weigh in on the city’s much-debated Creeks Ordinance, but a viable recommendation is still weeks away. 

Planning Director Dan Marks will go before the Berkeley City Council tonight (Tuesday) to request further time for consideration of the Creeks Ordinance, a law enacted in 1989 that regulates development on and near Berkeley’s open and interred waterways.  

Marks will ask councilmembers to extend a May 1 deadline initially prescribed in 2004 when they formed a Creeks Task Force charged with suggesting revisions to the ordinance. 

The council stipulated that if the task force failed to draft recommendations by May 1—recommendations the Planning Commission would also consider—creek culverts would be removed from the ordinance.  

That timeline has not been upheld. 

However, Deputy Planning Director Wendy Cosin does not foresee any problem securing an extension. 

“I don’t think there’s an issue,” she said. “The Creeks Task Force is moving ahead, the Planning Commission will make a recommendation and we will bring the whole package to the City Council in May.” 

For almost a year and a half, the task force has toiled over how to appease homeowners who want fewer restrictions on development near waterways and environmentalists who want to protect creeks and their natural habitats. 

Generally their recommendations—which are under constant revision—forbid or require permitting for development within 30-feet of a creek’s centerline, with exceptions made for repairs and rebuilding. 

Emma Gutzler, the restoration coordinator for the creeks advocacy group Urban Creeks Council, said those suggestions look pretty good.  

“Overall, we feel we are happy with what was presented,” she said Friday. “There are some measures we wanted to see, but generally it’s good for our creeks.” 

But as of April 17, the task force has submitted new recommendations and clarifications.  

One of the key additions is the definition of a creek. Currently, the ordinance restricts development within 30 feet of a waterway, whether open or interred. This has been cause for much brouhaha, since about a third of the 1,833 homes affected by the ordinance live near creek culverts. Many property owners insist those waterways are better likened to storm drains not natural channels that warrant environmental protection.  

The latest ordinance language agrees culverted creeks should be treated as storm drains under the authority of the Public Works Department. 

But former mayor Shirley Dean, who’s a member of the homeowners’ rights group Neighbors on Urban Creeks, says it isn’t enough.  

“It concerns us because of this atmosphere of distrust surrounding this ordinance,” she said. 

The group believes culverted creeks should be referred to in a completely separate resolution. 

Planning Commission Chair Helen Burke, who also heads up the Creeks Task Force, said there must be some mention of culverted creeks in the ordinance, per the city attorney’s advice.  

Further recent recommendations put forth by the task force include environmental analyses for some development (decks under certain circumstances in addition to vertical and horizontal expansions within 30 feet of a creek), and a requirement that affected homeowners must be notified before all future changes to the ordinance.  

Contingent on the City Council granting the extension, the Planning Commission is scheduled to compose final comments on the ordinance by May 10.  

Councilmembers should consider a draft ordinance by June, Burke said..