Tonight (Tuesday), Bruce Kelley, a local developer, will ask the City Council to approve his plans to build a house at 161 Panoramic Way. The lot Kelley plans to build on sits between two blind curves on the narrowest section of this substandard road. While California Fire Code requires roads to be 20 feet wide, Panoramic Way is only 11 feet, 8 inches wide adjacent to the north side of Kelley’s lot. Panoramic Way was designed for 1920s cars and has hardly been upgraded since then. The road is treacherous because of its narrowness, its many blind curves, and the absence of shoulders and sidewalks. Walkers and joggers are forced to the edge of the road to dodge passing cars and delivery trucks.
Larger trucks, unable to maneuver the curves, frequently block the road, sometimes for hours at a time. Delays in emergency response occur because the Fire Department has difficulty getting up the road. The construction of a new residence at the most dangerous location on the hill, with no ability for materials and supplies to be brought to the site without closing the road, could bring about life-threatening hazards. Panoramic Hill is zoned ESR, the strictest regulation in the city, because of the extreme fire danger and bad road conditions—there is only one entrance/exit serving all the 400-plus residents of the hill.
“PHA [Panoramic Hill Association] was formed in 1948 because of the desperate need for an emergency access road. Nearly 60 years later this need is more urgent than ever because the risks are higher. The woodlands have grown, the roadway and other infrastructure have badly deteriorated, and more and larger vehicles often clog the road and block access,” explained Jerry Wachtel, president of the PHA
In a close vote last March, the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) approved Kelley’s project, based, in large part, on the requirement that he perform several mitigations to reduce the risk and improve the safety of the proposed project. Inexplicably, these previously agreed upon mitigations seem to have changed. Most importantly, the ZAB approval prohibited construction activity, including loading/unloading or parking along and adjacent to the north side of the lot. Now city staff have flipped-flopped and have agreed to allow loading and construction at this, the most dangerous location on a dangerous road. In fact, they now propose closing the road on multiple occasions to allow construction to take place, thus denying their neighbors access to their own homes. . Neighbors are outraged and worried about the dire consequences should someone need an ambulance or fire department during the time the road is closed. But Kelley says closing the road and unloading from the north side will inconvenience no one.
One neighbor wonders how Kelley could get the city to waive the front yard 20-foot setback requirement to be able to build his house 4.8 feet from the property line. “Everyone expects front yard setbacks in residential neighborhoods,” she added, is there some sort of backroom deal?”
Janice Thomas, a Panoramic Hill resident, questioned the city’s role: “It is not the city’s job to twist the facts so as to make every project appear doable. Neither city staff nor advisory bodies nor elected officials should be so compelled. The applicant is indeed entitled to build at this site and to develop his property, but only if he does so in a way that does not cause detriment to others. To grant this use permit is to exacerbate an already existing dangerous condition, a condition that would not exist, I might add, were it not for the neglect of the city of Berkeley.”
The City of Berkeley and the City Council have had considerable interaction with Panoramic Hill neighbors this year. Both the city and the university contributed funds to commence a study looking at the feasibility an emergency access road so emergency vehicles can reach homes when the tiny road is blocked. The PHA is a co-plaintiff with the city and the California Oaks Foundation opposing the University’s development plans for the stadium and SE campus area. Alameda County has proposed merging the Oakland and Berkeley parts of Panoramic Hill into one city. The City of Oakland, in which part of Panoramic Hill lies, effectively has a moratorium on building on the hill. Berkeley is considering a similar moratorium. All of these actions are taking place for one simple reason; the combination of Panoramic Hill’s location in a high-risk wildfire area, its proximity to the Hayward Fault, and its outdated and substandard road, contribute to this community being at extremely high risk for loss of life in the event of a natural disaster.
There can be no excuse for approving a construction project that knowingly puts neighbors at elevated risk. Since the city is clearly aware of the existing dangers and the heightened risks imposed by this project, it would be more prudent, as Janice Thomas suggests, to first fix the road, and then allow development to more safely proceed.
At its July public hearing, Councilmember Betty Olds commented “I don’t know why you all up there put up with those bad conditions.” The fact is that Panoramic Hill residents have been trying to work with the city for 60 years to fix these life-safety risks, but have little to show for it. The residents of Panoramic Hill again request that the mayor and the city take action to improve those conditions and prohibit development of this project until the road is repaired and emergency access is available.
Cathy Orozco is a Berkeley resident.