Battle of Marin Avenue Nears Key Court Ruling

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday August 07, 2007

Ray Chamberlin took the Battle of Marin Avenue to a venerable venue last week when he faced lawyers representing the governments of two cities in a San Francisco courtroom. 

Facing three justices from the California Court of Appeal First District, he pled his case against attorneys representing Berkeley and Albany. 

Chamberlin had challenged the controversial reconfiguration of the roadway by the two city governments, which transformed the thoroughfare from four automobile lanes to two, with the goal of slowing traffic on the heavily used street. 

Two bike lanes were added, along with a center lane for making left turns. 

Proponents of the reconfiguration argued that the changes would make the street safer by slowing down cars that used the avenue for commuting to homes in the hills. 

East Bay bicycling advocates lobbied hard for the change, and both city councils endorsed the project, following adoption of separate environmental reviews. 

Chamberlin, a retired electrical engineer who lives in the Berkeley hills, challenged the project on behalf of the thousands of motorists who rely on Marin as a main route from their homes in the hills to the flatlands and freeway below. 

He said he doesn’t expect the court to order the roadway returned to the way it was—but he does hope for a written decision that will set a new precedent about the way environmental laws apply to similar joint projects by two governments in the future. 

What bothers Chamberlin is the way two cities handled what he said amounts to one project. 

“It’s really one project, and I don’t think the way they did it fits what the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) says, or what the case law says,” said Chamberlin. 

The retired engineer found himself in the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco last Wednesday, facing Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan and Robert J. Zweben, representing the City of Albany. 

“I started out looking for an attorney, and I consulted one early on. There was a group here who was interested, but there wasn’t enough money,” he said. ”Environmental attorneys are really expensive, and there was no way I could afford one.” 

So Chamberlin went “pro per,” legalese for representing himself. 

“The cities took me seriously,” he said. 

Delving into CEQA, Chamberlin said he grew concerned that the project had been handled in opposition to the spirit of the law, which generally holds that all aspects of major cases should be handled in one environmental review, rather than being split. 

“The geography of the avenue is continuous and it has always been named the same” in both cities, he said.  

The lay litigator said he was especially concerned because “Albany basically told Berkeley to shut up about it until they were done, and then Berkeley did it. These were real tactics going on, and I don’t think what they did fits what CEQA requires.” 

Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan said the court has to issue a ruling within 90 days of the hearing, though a recent ruling came down in just two weeks. 

“I would hope to hear something within the next 30 days,” he said. 

While Chamberlin said he doesn’t expect that the street would be restored to its prior condition should the court rule in his favor, Cowan said “he can’t have it both ways.” 

Asked if a victory for Chamberlin would mean that the roadways would have to be restored to its earlier four-lane incarnation, Cowan said the implication is that it would be, though the ultimate decision “would be up to the Superior Court on remand.” 

In his original court filing on Feb. 28, 2005, Chamberlin sought a court order mandating a single Environmental Impact Report that covered the entire project from San Pablo Avenue in Albany to The Alameda in Berkeley—with the alternative being abandonment of the project. 

But the reconfiguration went on as the case continued, and in her Jan. 13, 2006, ruling, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Sabraw found that Chamberlin had filed his action too late to encompass the larger, Albany segment of the project. 

Approximately one mile of the affected roadway falls within Albany city limits, while only four blocks are inside the City of Berkeley. Because his action was filed more than 30 days after the Albany City Council approved the project, that aspect of the case was moot, the judge ruled. 

Sabraw’s decision gave Chamberlin a victory in Berkeley only, and after additional hearings in the county court, Chamberlin filed a writ of appeal on March 27, 2006. 

Following a blizzard of notices and documentation, the case finally climaxed in last week’s hearing before a three-judge panel