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Housing Policy • March 3, 2006

An Evening With the Creek People

An Evening With the Creek People

On the chilly evening of February 15 I found myself at the first public meeting of Creeks Task Force.  So did about three hundred other folks.

What an education.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention the creeks issue arouses even greater emotions than rent control. The debate is rooted a typically feel-good Berkeley measure which, taken to its logical extreme (something we are very good at doing) is very bad indeed.

In 1989, self-professed environmentalists had a friend in Loni Hancock, then Mayor and now the wife of Tom Bates, as well as our local representative in the State Assembly. With little if any public debate, Loni sponsored an ordinance, which forbade any construction of “roofed structures” within thirty feet of the centerline of any creek in Berkeley.  “Creeks” were simply defined as “natural watercourses”, and most people thought that the rule applied only to new construction on vacant land through which an open creek flowed.

Not so.  Whether by negligence or design the drafting was so loose that creek advocates soon were arguing that there was no right to rebuild existing structures damaged by time or destroyed by disaster.  They also said (and still say) that “natural watercourses” include creeks that have been turned into culverts and drainpipes. This means that remodeling, repair work or replacement is also forbidden (absent a variance) in the homes and businesses built on top of the culverts.  In a series of opinions, the City Attorney has agreed with the creeksters, and all hell has broken loose.  The Mayor and City Council, awkwardly placed between property owners and creeksters, has tossed the matter to a “Task Force” whose job it is to listen to a bitter debate, which should have occurred back in 1980 before the ordinance was adopted.

And so I listened to the voices of the people on that chilly evening.  At one extreme were a few folks who just couldn't understand why there could be any impingement on their god-given property rights. At the other was a somewhat larger group who at bottom didn't believe in property rights at all.  Their talk was of the creeks being a part of “the Commons”, and about a dream of restoring a pristine, peaceable kingdom where every stream is day lighted, and left free to purl its unimpeded way to San Francisco Bay.

In the middle were a lot of practical folks concerned about whether they could get fire insurance, or borrow money, or, if need be, sell their homes if the insurers, bankers, and prospective buyers must now be told that they can't add a bedroom or bath, and that they might not even be able to replace a burned-out kitchen if their home is within thirty feet of a creek or culvert.

It wasn't very long before it struck me that this was a repeat performance of what we have so often seen whenever questions of landlord and tenant rights come up.  On the one hand there are the self-righteous who dream of utopia and who by tone of voice and word-choice reveal that they are God's anointed, and that no matter what the cost to others might be, there can be no compromise when it comes to questions of cheap housing, open space, and dedicated bike lanes on Claremont Boulevard.  On the other are the homeowners who have idly stood by while others have been victimized, but who now rise in anger when their own rights are threatened.  Unhappily, many of these folks (who have not been able to dirty their hands in public debate till now) have adopted the tactics of their enemies, booing, hissing and drowning out the arguments they do not like.

But there were occasional glimpses of truth.  There was for example the woman, probably near retirement, whose life savings are in a small home with a buried culvert in the front yard.  She told us that the culvert has caved in, and that it will cost $400,000 to fix it. The City, whose job it should be to maintain the thing, claims that it is the homeowner's responsibility, and has declared the house uninhabitable until the culvert is restored. The owner has no money, and lives in her car, while the City prepares to seize the property.

There was another speaker who said simply “it doesn't matter what we say here tonight.  The Council will go ahead and do what it wants to do”.  The comment says a lot about a fundamental discontent that no politician seems yet able to understand. Maybe people are beginning to connect the dots.  Maybe they will come to see how their own particular grievances overlap with those of others, and that the same self-righteous arrogance that led to the creek ordinance is also behind other city problems, such as  high taxes, poor city services, deteriorating infrastructure, and failed housing policies.

That's the latest from Lake Wobegone, where all the people are convinced that only they are right.


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