City Council to Gauge Soft-Story Ordinance, Pools Ballot Measure and Energy Upgrade Program

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday December 15, 2009 - 10:23:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council is rushing to take care of unfinished business at its Tuesday meeting before breaking for winter recess Dec. 16. 

On the list is enforcement of the city’s soft-story ordinance, a recommendation for the pools ballot measure and whether to join CaliforniaFIRST, a statewide property-based energy financing program modeled on the Berkeley FIRST pilot program which concluded this month. 


Soft-story ordinance enforcement 

Ever wondered whether your house will survive the next major earthquake? You may finally get an answer. 

The City of Berkeley is considering beefing up stricter enforcement of its existing soft-story ordinance, which requires owners of seismically unsafe buildings to inform tenants about the risks.  

Soft-story buildings are usually more vulnerable during earthquakes. 

There are approximately 400 soft-story buildings in Berkeley, of which 320 were especially vulnerable in earthquakes because of their wood frame structure. As of spring 2009, 31 have been retrofitted.  

According to a report by the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, the majority of soft-story building owners in Berkeley are violating the ordinance by not posting warning signs about the structures.  

A May 2009 survey by Disaster and Fire Safety Commissioner John Caner of the city’s list of “Potentially Hazardous Story Buildings” in the Willard neighborhood found that just two of the 15 buildings had warning signs posted, and one of those was a flimsy paper sign attached with putty at in inconspicuous location in the building. 

The commission is requesting that the city mandate that all city departments and agencies check for warning signs on soft-story buildings and levy fines on landlords who continue to disregard the law. 

The commission also wants the city to amend the existing ordinance which would require building owners to notify prospective tenants about the earthquake risks through flyers and web postings.  

The amended ordinance would also require tenants, before signing a lease, to sign a disclosure form acknowledging they are aware of the seismic hazards. 

A report from city Planning Director Dan Marks asks the City Council to give city staff time to consider the commission’s recommendation and return with proposals for how to address the problem given limited resources. 

Marks says that additional resources might be required for a “more aggressive effort” at seeking compliance. 

According to city officials, the proposed enforcement is expected to be followed by a requirement asking owners of soft-story buildings to retrofit their property. 


Pools ballot measure for June 2010 

The City Council is expected to recommend Tuesday whether a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District or a bond measure should be used to raise funds for the citywide pools project in the June 2010 election. The project aims to renovate, repair or replace some of the city’s existing pools. 

The council approved the citywide pools master plan at its Nov. 17 meeting, which included the relocation of the warm water pool from the Berkeley High School Old Gym, slated for demolition in 2011, to the West Campus. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said that if the Berkeley Unified School District decided to put bond measures on the November 2010 ballot, the city would have to place the pools bond on the June 2010 ballot.  

The school district will let the council know by January whether it plans to have any bond measures on the November 2010 ballot.  

Some city councilmembers expressed reservations as to whether voters would approve the pools ballot measure in the June election given the dismal economy and traditionally low voter turnout during that period. UC Berkeley students, who usually vote for taxes and bonds, will also be away on summer vacation at that time. 

The council passed a motion at its November meeting to carry out a voter survey to gauge whether the measure would get the required two-thirds vote to pass. 


CaliforniaFIRST program 

The Berkeley City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the CaliforniaFIRST program, following which it will vote on whether the city should take part in it. 

Modeled on the Berkeley FIRST pilot program, which came to an end this month, CaliforniaFIRST “presents an opportunity to increase the scale of the property-based clean energy financing model and to relieve Berkeley and other cities of having to administer such a program on a city-by-city basis,” according to a report prepared by city Planning Director Dan Marks. 

The report says that the program is consistent with Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan and ongoing efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

Started by California Communities, CaliforniaFIRST gives homeowners in participating cities and counties an opportunity to finance renewable energy, energy efficiency and water efficiency by taking out loans repayable through assessments levied on property taxes. 

If a property owner takes part in the program, the improvements will be financed by bonds issued by California Communities. 

The pilot program aims to “quickly reach a minimum of $25 million in projects through a pooled bond approach, resulting in a better bond rating and lower interest rate than a Berkeley-only program,” according to the report. 

The program is expected to be launched in June 2010, following which a broader program will be unveiled that proposes to finance $330 million worth of projects within three years. 

According to the report, a preliminary assessment of the Berkeley FIRST program found that one of the main reasons property owners chose not to take part in it was because of its relatively high interest rate.  

City staff are expected to present a more comprehensive assessment of the Berkeley FIRST program to council in May 2010. 

The report says that “Alameda County and at least one incorporated city within it must adopt a resolution joining CaliforniaFIRST by Jan. 18, 2010 in order for legal validation of several program components to proceed.” 

According to the report, although at least one other city in the county is working to adopt a resolution within the specified timeline, “there is no guarantee that any of them will pass.” 

Therefore city staff is recommending that the council vote on whether to approve the program at Tuesday’s meeting. 

The report acknowledges that although certain details of the program, including the interest rate and administrative costs for participating property owners, have not been established as yet, and that “ideally, all details would be specified before the city made a commitment to participate,” the deadline for the “funding opportunity necessitates a commitment prior to understanding all details.”  

The City Council is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. today (Tuesday, Dec. 15) at the Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 2134 MLK Jr. Way.