A long-awaited hearing was held on Wednesday morning at Alameda County Superior Court in a case that sees the city of Berkeley pitched against a group of Berkeley residents over a well-known software mogul and philanthropist’s attempt to build a new, contemporary-style home at 2707 Rose Street.
After the application by Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and his wife Freada Kapor-Klein to construct a new house on their Rose Street lot was initially approved by Berkeley’s zoning board in January, a group of residents created the Berkeley Hills Preservation (BHP) group to protest what they saw as the city’s inadequate due process on assessing the application. In May, after the City Council did not overturn the ZAB decision, BHP sued the City arguing that an Environmental Impact Report should have been carried out under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
At issue at the two-and-a-half hour hearing yesterday, presided over by Judge Frank Roesch, was whether Mr Kapor’s proposed home construction represented unusual circumstances and, if so, whether it should be subject to environmental evaluations not usually required with a single family home.
Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley, representing Berkeley Hillside Preservation, argued for an EIR on several grounds: the size of the home, which, when including its 10-car underground garage will total 10,000 sq ft, the nature of Rose Street which at the address in question is steep and narrow, the potential disruption to neighbors from construction traffic, the compatibility of the proposed home with the historically significant homes in its vicinity, as well as the aesthetic value of the new home which would be designed by Berkeley architects Marcy Wong Donn Logan.
Brandt-Hawley also cited an engineering report by geotechnical expert Dr. Lawrence Karp which, she said, demonstrated the need for further environmental assessment.
Brandt-Hawley said the new home would not be “run of the mill” and would be among the five largest built among the 17,000 single-family residences in Berkeley.
Mr Kapor’s attorney, Amrit S. Kulkarni, who was accompanied by Laura McKinney, Berkeley’s Deputy City Attorney, said that it being a big house did not make Mr Kapor’s potential home an unusual case and pointed out there were no square foot limitations on single family homes in Berkeley. He said the city had conducted a rigorous review process and found that “Mr Kapor’s home is consistent with all the city’s development standards”. He added that the home was well below many standards, for example on height and setbacks.
Kulkarni also said that there were ten homes that were bigger than 10,000 sq ft in Berkeley and that the proposed Kapor home would not impact neighbors’ views or shading, was secluded and set back from the street and would represent just 15.6% of its lot’s coverage.
An unusual factor in the case is that immediate neighbors to the proposed home have publicly expressed their support for the Kapors’ plan. In his opposition brief to the court, Kulkarni cited City Councilmember Linda Maio who remarked at the April Council appeal meeting that in her 20 years as a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board and City Council, this was the first time all immediate neighbors supported a project while other residents, who did not reside in the immediate vicinity, objected. Mr Kulkarni compared the BHP group to “armchair planners” who were “raising their subjective objections from a comfortable distance away from the project location”.
Susan Nunes Fadley, who represents Berkeley Hills Preservation, said not all members of the group lived close to 2707 Rose. She declined to confirm how many members BHP had and said she did not know what steps would be taken if the BHP lost the case.
Local architect Gary Parsons, who has argued from the beginning that Berkeley failed to conduct due process in the case, said of yesterday’s hearing: “Of course I would like to see the big house conform to CEQA, but no matter what happens I know that the city will think twice before slipping such things through in such a shoddy way. So it’s a win regardless, in a way.”
Judge Roesch, who conceded the difficulties inherent in defining “unusual circumstances”, said he would submit his response shortly.