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Council Tackles Condo Conversion, Wood Smoke and Recreation Fees

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM

It was a busy, eclectic night at Berkeley City Hall Tuesday, with the Berkeley City Council moving forward on a range of issues, including changing the city’s condominium conversion mitigation fees, establishing citizen nuisance wood smoke abatement procedures, and raising recreation fees. 

In addition, the council halted further consideration of blanket deferrals of building permit fees for new construction in the city, while asking staff to come back with recommendations for possible deferral of sewer hookup permit fees. 

The thorniest issue was condominium conversion, where the council considered a complicated staff recommendation for revisions in the amount of fees charged to convert dwellings to condominiums, as well as the process by which those fees are determined.  

The purpose of the condominium conversion fee—set by the council in 2005 at 12.5 percent of the sale price of the unit to be converted—is both to help the city add back affordable rental housing that was lost in the condominium conversion, as well as to give the city a share in some of the windfall accrued by new condominium owners for the raise in property values caused by the conversion. 

There was general agreement among the council, staff, and residents speaking at the meeting that the current conversion fee is probably too high and that the city approval procedures are too complicated. Staff said, for example, that there are five different possible condominium conversion fees for duplex owners, and that the current procedure sometimes requires applicants to go back as far as 10 years for financial documentation, a process one staff member described as “difficult.” But there was little agreement on how much to charge, or exactly what parts of the procedure to streamline or change. 

“There is absolutely no community consensus on the fees,” Acting Berkeley Housing Director Jane Micallef told councilmembers on Tuesday. “Some thought the current fees were too low, some thought they were too high.” 

And while representatives of the Berkeley Rent Board said that they were “generally in agreement with staff’s approach,” representatives of Housing Opportunities for Everyone (HOPE) were not. 

In a letter to the mayor and council included in the agenda packet, HOPE’s David Wilson said that “despite explicit direction from the council” in December 2007, “and assurances to the public, staff has refused to analyze the conversion fees charged by the city, and has now proposed changes that would actually increase these fees for owner occupants and tenant buyers.” In his letter, Wilson told the council that staff’s proposals “should not be acted on until staff has done the impartial fee study.” 

And one Berkeley resident, who said he was currently going through condominium conversion, suggested the fees be cut down to as low as 1.5 percent from the current 12.5 percent 

Though no one on the council suggested reducing fees that low, councilmembers had similar mixed feelings about staff’s suggestions. 

Councilmember Linda Maio suggested a fee reduction from 12.5 percent to 10 percent—larger than Capitelli’s 8 percent proposal—but lost on a 5-3 vote (Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, Betty Olds, Gordon Wozniak, and Bates voting for 8 percent, Maio, Max Anderson, and Kriss Worthington voting for the 10 percent fee). 

With Bates suggesting that he “didn’t know if 8 percent is the correct figure. I might go lower, depending on how this works,” council also approved an annual review of the conversion fee to see its effect and to analyze the financial situation. 

That was not enough for Olds, who complained several times that councilmembers had no idea of the effect of the fee amount, and were “pulling figures out of the air.” At one point, Olds even evoked the late Councilmember Dona Spring, saying that council had passed the 12.5 percent conversion fee amount only at Spring’s insistence. It was not immediately clear what that had to do with Tuesday night’s deliberations. 

And Anderson said he was hoping a decision on the entire condominium conversion issue could be delayed until input was solicited from a wider range of Berkeley residents. 

Noting that only a handful of residents showed up to talk at Tuesday’s meeting, and that the staff report indicated only 11 persons (including applicants, consultants, and representatives of tenancies in common) showed up at a June 18 special hearing on the proposals, Anderson said he wanted to see more tenants and tenant representatives weigh in on the issue. “There are people in this city who can’t afford a TIC (tenancy in common) or a home purchase, and depend on us to keep a stock of affordable housing,” Anderson said. “I’d like to hear from groups like the East Bay Community Law Center. I’m in favor of striking a balance between affordable housing and assisting in raising home ownership.” 

But Anderson conceded he did not have the votes for a delay, and did not make a motion to attempt it. 

In the end, with Worthington and Anderson voting no, the council agreed to submit for staff consideration several issues suggested by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, including cutting the conversion mitigation fee to 8 percent, putting aside some of the funds for first-time homeowners assistance. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said that staff would bring the new set of recommendations back to the council sometime in October. 


In other action on Tuesday, the council: 

• Approved on first reading an ordinance setting up a conflict resolution system for residents with complaints about neighbors’ wood smoke. Under the new ordinance, direct neighbors within 120 feet of the source of wood smoke who complained of a problem would be allowed to go through a procedure of mediation and binding arbitration and then, if necessary, litigation in Superior Court.  

Staff said it receives between 30 to 40 complaints each year about problems with neighbors’ wood smoke. 

• Raised fees at City of Berkeley camps—including Berkeley Tuolumne, Echo Lake, Cazadero Arts, and Berkeley Day—to pay for a new online camp registration system and increased maintenance costs due to code compliance issues at Echo Lake and Tuolumne.  

Under the new structure, one-week day camp youth camp fees for Berkeley residents would rise from $99 to $135, while daily family camp fees at Tuolomne would rise from $88 to $96 for adults, $60 to $65 for youth 7 to 14, and $45 to $49 for children.  

Staff said recommendations for fee raises for other Berkeley recreation programs will be submitted later this council session.