Contentious Lawn Parking Law Revision Delayed

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 28, 2006

As Berkeley curbs get increasingly jammed hood-to-trunk with stationary vehicles, easing rules about parking cars on private property becomes a viable solution, the city’s planning staff says.  

But throwing down a cement slab in a back or side yard to house an automobile or two could mean blowing exhaust fumes into a next-door baby’s bedroom window or providing a neighbor with a view of a car rather than trees or grass. The increased asphalt also reduces the amount of land where rainwater can drain through the earth rather than running off the solid surface into an already overburdened storm water system, planning commissioners argue. 

These were some of the thorny questions the City Council faced Tuesday, when looking at competing proposals for a new ordinance regulating where people can park cars in private yards. Rather than vote on the question, the body put off the decision until the council’s next meeting, May 16. 

Planning Department staff is recommending that people be allowed to create parking spaces in the side and back yards, simply by obtaining a “zoning certificate,” a permit issued administratively. This means that neighbors will not be notified of a person’s intent to create parking in a nearby yard and have no right to contest it.  

The Planning Commission is recommending something different—that an administrative use permit be required when creating parking spaces anywhere on private property. This type of permit obliges the city to alert neighbors of the project and gives them a way to file an objection and stop or alter the project. 

Councilmember Dona Spring was particularly outraged at the staff proposal. 

“How do you get out and enjoy your backyard?” she asked in an interview Tuesday morning. “It’s against what our neighborhoods are all about.” 

Spring also pointed to the problem of creating more impervious surfaces. “We’re already flooding,” she said.  

Representing the Planning Commission majority, Commissioner Gene Poschman weighed in at the meeting against the staff proposal, which, if adopted, means, “We’ll see a vast amount of paving,” he said. 

Councilmember Linda Maio agreed. Speaking of her north-central Berkeley neighborhood, she said, “People are squeezing cars in wherever they can. It’s not a good thing to take away places where people can have gardens.”  

Mark Rhoades, land-use planning manager, argued that the situation won’t change significantly if the staff recommendation is approved. 

“Driveways go through the side yards now; driveways lead to garages in the rear yard,” he said. 

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli agreed with Rhoades. Both staff and Planning Commission proposals continue to allow building garages in back and side yards, he said, arguing that it is not fair that the person who needs to obtain a permit to create an uncovered parking space can build a garage without such a permit. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, Capitelli noted, however, that he is sympathetic to the need to avoid creating new solid surfaces. 

“We should insist that any work be done using crushed granite or other pervious landscaping materials,” he said. And, he added, people should be required to provide “proper screening” for the parked vehicles. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he does not accept either of the proposals, but would rather keep things as they are now, with a variance required for back and side yard parking. A variance is very hard to obtain, more difficult than the administrative use permit the Planning Commission has envisaged, he said. 

To get a variance one would have to prove an absolute need for the parking space to get it through the Zoning Adjustments Board, Worthington said..