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Landmarks Law Heads Back to Ballot Box

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 26, 2007

It’s official. The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) is headed back to the ballot box. 

Austene Hall, co-chair of the drive to force a voter decision on the revised LPO adopted by the City Council Dec. 12, received the official notice Wednesday afternoon in an email from Berkeley City Clerk Pamyla Means. 

“The random sample signature verification found that the petitions contain 120 percent of the number of signatures needed to qualify (4,073),” Means wrote. “The petition results will be submitted to the City Council on February 13.” 

“I think it’s great, and I’m very excited,” said Austene Hall, co-chair of the signature drive that began the same day as the final council vote on the new LPO championed by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. 

“Well, you know, we’ve been through it before and we’ll go through it again,” said Capitelli. That’s the democratic process and you’ve got to love it.” 

Certification of the signatures by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters blocks enforcement of the new LPO until city voters can cast yes or no votes during the next citywide election. 

Bates has rejected a special election on the issue, which means the vote could come during the June 2008, primary election or earlier if a special election is called on another issue. Capitelli agreed. “That’s just too much cost at this point,” he said. 

The new law had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 12, but was blocked when volunteers handed in petitions bearing 5,947 signatures. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters then had 30 days to conduct a random sample of three percent of the signatures to determine their validity. The referendum passed with flying colors. 

Wednesday’s announcement came 78 days after Berkeley voters defeated Measure J, an initiative launched after the council’s first vote in July to adopt a new LPO. 

In the Nov. 7 election—conducted after an expensive campaign by initiative foes bankrolled by Business for Better Government, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee—voters defeated Measure J by a 57-43 percent margin. 

Darrel de Tienne, the San Francisco-based developer’s representative whose clients contributed much of the anti-J funds, said he and his developers will be back in the fray when the initiative comes back for a vote. 

“I don’t think there’s much more to be said,” he said. 

Laurie Bright, co-chair of the Measure J committee, hailed the announcement of the referendum signature drive Thursday morning. “It’s their move now,” he said, referring to the council majority that adopted the threatened LPO. 

“That was pretty good news to wake up to,” he said of Means’ announcement. “The volunteers were everything. They worked their hearts out.” 

In addition to rallying support after a setback at the ballot box, referendum supporters also had to contend with gathering signatures over the winter holidays, an interval when many residents are either out of town or preoccupied with family matters. 

“We’re all happy campers today,” Bright said, “and if we could also get the university to back off the trees, it would be a really good week.” 

Bright was referring to the ongoing battle between UC Berkeley and environmental and neighborhood activists, joined by the city, over the fate of a grove of California live oaks and other trees along the western wall of Memorial Stadium, which the university plans to ax to make room for a $125 million gym complex. 

Hall said one encouraging sign for the upcoming election came from the Berkeley Hills, where signature gatherers found strong support for the referendum in the area where the vote against Measure J was the highest. 

“People are becoming more and more aware of the importance to their neighborhoods and the community of these architectural gems that are found both in the hills and in the flats,” she said. 

Hall said she would meet with referendum supporters in the near future to begin laying the groundwork for the electoral battle ahead. 

Critics of the mayor’s ordinance are particularly concerned with a “safe harbor” provision that gives owners and developers a two-year window of exemption from preservation efforts if the Landmarks Preservation Commission fails to act on a new legal mechanism called a Request for Determination, or RFD. 

Developers and the council majority said the provision is necessary to stop landmarking efforts launched less to save old buildings than to block new projects. 

Meanwhile, the stalled LPO passed by the council is undergoing a second challenge, this one in the courtroom. A coalition of neighborhood activists that includes Daily Planet arts and calendar editor Anne Wagley has filed a suit alleging the council acted illegally in adopting the ordinance without first preparing an environmental impact report. 

The city contends an environmental initial study adopted on the July reading of the Bates/Capitelli ordinance was sufficient.