Dear reader: There are two types of people in Berkeley: rubes like you and me, and there are the elite. The normal rules that rubes live, bleed, and die by don’t apply to the elite. The elite needn’t follow the well-established required procedures nor abide by municipal regulations. They’re special and they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for them.
One of Berkeley’s most onerous departments of rules and regulations is its Building Department. If the average citizen rube wants to replace a water heater, stove or even a light switch, the law says he has to pull a building permit. If the rube wants to repair his front porch, he has to turn in working drawings and a lot map, and pay hundreds of dollars to get said building permit. I know from personal experience.
Heaven forbid after buying your 1,145 square-foot house for $435,000 less than a year ago, as Ryan Lau did, you should want to tear down your miniscule old and decrepit garage built in the 1920s and replace it with a lovely residential structure twice as large and located far less than the required four feet from the property line. If a rube wanted to build too close to his neighbor’s property he would have to get a ‘Use Permit,’ which would likely require a public hearing and cost the rube thousands and thousands of dollars. He might even end up in front of the Zoning Adjustment Board!
Of course if the person who wants to do such a thing is named Ryan Lau, Councilman Darryl Moore’s long-time aide and appointed Commissioner to the Zoning Adjustments Board, rules mean nothing.
Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Ryan simply tore down (without a demolition permit) all but the front of his funky old 10x20 foot garage and replaced it on the property line with an elegant residential-style structure more than twice as large (roughly 12x36 feet). Mr. Lau left one wall of the teetering temporary front façade of the old garage still standing precariously, the better to hide the massive construction project in-process behind it. The new building is lovely and substantial: taller, wider, nearly twice as long. It offers the proud owner lovely wide windows and double French doors in front, and what looks like a bathroom, rear entrance and bedroom in the back.
Mr.Lau, the well-paid Aide to Councilman Darryl Moore from District 2, didn’t apply for a use permit for such a magnificent project according to Aaron Sage, Senior Planner for the City of Berkeley. Mr. Sage was manning the Zoning Department desk when I submitted my request for information. After researching the issue Mr. Sage looked quite uncomfortable, saying that no Use Permit, nor any other zoning permit, had been issued.
It seems Mr. Lau didn’t bother to apply for a building permit either, according to two different Building Department employees who researched the question for me when I submitted my official written request at the building department’s information counter Normally a building permit would require zoning approval, site plans, building plans, neighborhood meetings, and probably a zoning adjustment hearing (in front of Mr. Lau and/or his friends on the board)!
When I went to Mr. Lau’s house to speak with the owner and see and photograph this extravagant violation of the city’s building and zoning codes, a woman, who I assumed was Nicole Drake, Mr. Lau’s significant other, came out of the house and screamed threats at me repeatedly and claimed she called the police. Unfortunately she refused to identify herself or to speak to me about the construction project. There was no work-card/permit posted anywhere in sight, as is required by regulation. Ironically enough Ms. Drake is also employed by the city of Berkeley. She is District 1 Councilwoman Linda Maio’s well-paid aide.
Like many in Berkeley, over the years I have become more than a little familiar with the workings of code enforcement. I have been red-tagged (an immediate work-stop-order) by the city numerous times, typically for doing minor repairs to my home, and once for work I wasn’t doing!
My son, Asa Dodsworth , has had Gregory Daniel, Berkeley’s chief code enforcer, and Maurice Norrise, Mr. Daniel’s subordinate, at his home so frequently he wonders whether he could legally charge them rent. Through much effort Asa has managed to get the city to reduce the fines imposed against him for planting vegetables in his median strip and similar such extravagances reduced to only several thousand dollars from a much, much higher figure, but the city continues to badger and harass him relentlessly.
Many years ago Berkeley’s building department cited me personally for most of the entire Uniform Building Code (according to Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman). All for naught, Commissioner Rantzman dismissed every citation. When this mayor’s wife was our mayor, I was again cited for new laws they were making up almost as quickly as they were writing the citations. Again for naught, the city promptly rewrote its new laws several times before deleting them entirely.
I attempted to contact Mayor Tom Bates regarding Mr. Lau’s violations, especially in light of his position as a city council aide and a zoning adjustment board commission member. One of the Mayor’s aides spoke with me, and then with the mayor, and then came back and took my phone number. I heard nothing more. I also attempted to speak with both Councilman Moore and Councilwoman Maio regarding their aides’ involvement in this violation of the public trust. Neither called me back but I wasn’t surprised. The voice on Ms. Maio’s telephone answering machine seemed to belong to Ms. Drake.
I also spoke with Gregory Daniel of Code Enforcement. He insured me he would treat this matter with the same professionalism he gave to every other code violation in Berkeley. Mr. Norrise said ‘Hi.’
It’s a real shame I’m not an important person in Berkeley. If I was important I’m sure the city would treat me and my son as cavalierly as the city treats Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Lau. It would be fun to just do whatever I liked without regard to the laws and regulations of our community. Much more likely because of this little report I expect someone from the city will soon be knocking on my door or my son’s door looking for forbidden flowers and vegetables or evidence of new paint and repairs. Berkeley’s that kind of place.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Daily Californian in re-reporting this story referred to it as an "op-ed". Fred's story is not an op-ed--it's a news story written from a personal perspective. The information in the story came from an anonymous tip to the Berkeley Daily Planet, which was then checked by two independent citizens who follow planning issues, and only then turned over to Fred, an experienced independent journalist with a long resume, who did one more check to be sure. He added to the story by bringing in his personal experience and his son's, to give a perspective to readers who have no experience with the planning process. But it's not just opinion, it's facts checked by three knowledgeable people.