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LPO Petitions Turned in as Battle Heads to Ballot Box

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 12, 2007

The battle between developers and Berkeley preservationists appears to be headed back to the ballot box. 

Foes of a developer-backed City Council revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) turned in 5,947 signatures Thursday on petitions to freeze implementation of the new law pending a public vote. 

The signature drive, backed by many of the same activists who failed in November to win voter endorsement of a rival ordinance designed to update the existing LPO, culminated Thursday afternoon when activists presented the petitions to City Clerk Pamyla C. Means. 

“We’re just totally, totally happy,” said Julie Dickinson, one of the two chairs of the signature drive. “We pulled a lot of people together, and we’re very pleased that so many people signed.” 

The petitions included 1,816 more signatures than the required 4,092, a figure based on the required 10 percent of the turnout in the last mayoral election. 

In November, 40,914 Berkeleyans voted in the race in which incumbent Mayor Tom Bates handily defeated four other foes by capturing 62.8 percent of the vote. Those same voters rejected measure J by a 57-43 percent margin. 

After Dickinson and her allies handed over the petitions, Means said, “We’re doing a prima facie examination now, and if it is passes, we’ll deliver them to the Registrar of Voters tomorrow. They’ll have 30 days to verify them.” 

The county registrar is required to examine a minimum of 3 percent of the signatures to determine if they were made by eligible Berkeley voters. 

Asa Dodsworth, a neighborhood activist who worked on the campaign, said the referendum supporters had aimed to gather at least 20 percent more than the required figure to make up for signers who might be rejected. 

Dickinson said the campaign relied on a core group of about a dozen activists. “They brought in their friends, so the effort was dispersed, like a spider’s web,” she said. 

Under Article XV of the City Charter, voters can block enforcement of a City Council ordinance if they gather the needed signatures within 30 days after the council’s last vote on the ordinance. 

The measure is then stayed until the next regularly scheduled statewide general or special election. The next California primary will be held in June 2008 followed by a general election in November. 

Means said that City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque has also said that the City Council could call a special election on its own. 

Referendum backers fear the new law, sponsored by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, will pave the way for neighborhood-changing demolitions. 

The most controversial aspect of the mayor’s ordinance is the Request for Determination, or RFD. 

That procedure allows a property owner to demand an LPC decision either to landmark the property or to decline to make that designation. Failure to designate would give the owner a two-year exemption from any further landmarking efforts. 

Developers say the measure is needed because landmarking has been used by neighborhood activists to block projects that would otherwise be allowed by city codes. 

Critics charge that by granting the exemption before a project is floated, neighbors are stripped of a crucial tool to block projects that will alter their communities and destroy crucial neighborhood landmarks. 

The new ordinance does include the structure of merit category, which developers had wanted out because designations of less-pristine buildings had been used to delay and, in one case, block projects. 

Developer appeals to overturn structure of merit designations raised after projects had been proposed were granted by city councilmembers in recent cases, but the delay in the case of one project at 2901 Otis St. led developers to abandon the project even though they had won a favorable council vote. 

If the signatures are valid and a referendum is held, the vote will be all-or-none—either voters accept or reject the new law in its entirety. 

Any effort to challenge only parts of the law, specifically the RFD, was blocked by a last-minute change of language that made it unseverable—a referendum could not be used to stop only part of it. 

Measure J was defeated in an election in which the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee served as a conduit for large sums of developer money that targeted the measure and the two city councilmembers most critical of development projects, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington.