Much of the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday was devoted to an appeal of one family’s plan to build additions onto their Berkeley hills home. But the 18-month saga reached no resolution, raising questions about the council’s role in a small case that has been through a long permitting process.
At the Oct. 31 meeting, the council will again take up the issue of construction at the Santa Barbara Road home and three neighboring households’ concerns that the desired two-story addition would obstruct their views of the bay. The project would add a second-story addition to one corner of the house, which is on the 900 block, and a first-story addition on another corner, totaling about 700 square feet.
Neighbors who live across the street from the home first appealed to the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) in the spring. They said that the proposed project would block some of their views of the Bay Bridge and other landmarks. ZAB approved the applicants’ building permit, only under the condition that they create greater setbacks for the proposed master bedroom and deck, compromising with the neighbors.
The three neighboring households appealed again to the City Council, partially on the basis that the applicants had not moved the story poles — poles showing the outline of the proposed additions — to reflect ZAB’s requirements. City Planning Department staff told the council the poles had been moved a few days later, and recommended the appeal be dismissed, as the effect on the neighbors’ views had not been determined to be detrimental.
Addressing the council Tuesday, the permit applicant said her family had purchased the Santa Barbara Road home when they only had one child. Now, she said, her three daughters are sharing a bedroom and bathroom. They also plan to have her husband’s parents move into the house, but there is no room for them as is.
“We asked our architect to design a compact addition,” the applicant said. “We couldn’t anticipate every little impact. [ZAB] reduced our addition by over 40 feet…We just don’t get this second appeal. We’re tired. We thought we’d be halfway through construction by now.”
The architect is Matt Baran, whose studio designed another controversial Berkeley project, on Haskell Street, which led to lawsuits against the city, but was ultimately approved.
Some of the appellants of the Santa Barbara plan said the view was the reason they purchased a home in the neighborhood, and the source of joy or rejuvenation for disabled or ill members of their households.
“We do not want to redesign the applicants’ house for them, but the applicants have shown no interest in exploring alternatives,” one appellant said.
Because the applicants’ plans would increase their already expansive bay views while obstructing some of the others’ meager views, another appellant said the project “seems to us like taking a few dollars from a poor person to give to a millionaire.” He asked the council to “help us reach a compromise where there is a more equitable sharing of the burden of this construction.”
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, whose district includes the homes in questions, said it boils down to an ethical and moral question for her.
The applicants “are living in very tight quarters. I think they need to expand their home,” said Wengraf. “What’s in question for me is how do we allow someone in the hills to expand their home and have sweeping views on both floors…and not deprive the people uphill of the views they have?” She clashed with the applicants and their lawyer a couple times throughout the meeting, calling an applicant “emotional” when she accused Wengraf of having come to the meeting with her mind made up in support of the appellants.
Councilman Ben Bartlett said the decision was not so complex in his mind. Allowing the applicants to house their parents is more important than preserving views, he said.
Some of the two-hour discussion revolved around the appropriate role for the City Council to play in a case like this. Unlike many other appeal that have ignited polarizing debates around housing and affordability, the case in question does not deal with density, height or the construction of new buildings.
Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who used to serve on ZAB, said the council should not redesign the project for the applicants, but said she believed a compromise was possible and easy.
“I’ve seen enough of these that I know this design can be slightly modified,” she said.
The applicants and their lawyer and architect said they were fine making additional tweaks, and told the council to just tell them what constituted a detriment to the views, and they would draw up a design that complied with the perimeters.
Councilwoman Linda Maio proposed continuing the discussion to the Oct. 31 meeting, to the chagrin of some who wanted to come out of the meeting with a decision.
Councilman Kriss Worthington questioned why the City Council would dive back into the details of a project that already went through the ringer with ZAB, which came to a consensus.
“Our zoning process is so abysmal,” he said. “If you’ve been all the way through the process and you got an 8-1 vote, that’s a supermajority more than you usually get from anything remotely controversial.”
He made a motion to accept ZAB’s denial of the neighbors’ appeal and put an end to a “far too long, torturous process.”
Councilwoman Lori Droste, who said she empathized with all the parties but particularly felt for the applicant, being a parent of young children as well, agreed with Worthington.
“Eighteen months is a really long time,” she said. ‘The process is broken. I don’t have any desire to revisit this.”
However, with additional support from only Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Bartlett along with Droste, Worthington’s motion fell short of the five votes in needed to pass. The motion to continue the discussion passed instead, unanimously.