The Panoramic Hill Zoning Ordinance – Update

Panoramic Hill (PH), is the only Residential District in Berkeley with its own zoning ordinance, which the Planning Department has been revising since 2008. One of the main changes is to link the number of off-street parking spaces required of each house to the number of newly-defined “bedrooms” it contains. Unfortunately, this definition includes dining rooms and all other rooms except living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. Also, the City does not count “tandem” parking, where one car is behind another on a driveway. Thus, given the steep slopes of PH, meeting the number of required off-street parking spaces becomes impossible for 99% of the residents.

While existing houses are “grandfathered in”, the off-street parking requirements kick in for any activity on PH that requires an (Administrative) Use Permit. And nearly any activity on PH does – home remodeling, home businesses, room rentals, etc. It is quite possible that Planning Department’s redefinition of such a common word as “bedroom” would not survive a court challenge, and could even be considered a Regulatory Taking, prohibited under the Federal Constitution, because without the ability to rent out rooms, some seniors would be unable to pay Berkeley’s property taxes, which are almost certainly the highest in the State.

Fortunately, the City Council instructed the Planning Commission to revisit this bizarre and unique definition of bedroom. Unfortunately, to use the Silicon Valley vernacular, we were hosed by the Commission. I have already reported on the November meeting, which went well. The subject was continued to the Commission meeting on December 8. In December, the Commission voted not to change the definition of bedroom. Regrettably, at least one Commissioner confused the PH definition of bedroom with one from Sonoma County, which had been provided by Planning Department, as evidence that similar definitions are used elsewhere. In fact, the two definitions are very different.

We had hoped to gain acceptance of an idea proposed by Planning Commissioner Dacey at the previous meeting. This would have abandoned the linkage between bedrooms and off-street parking, and instead limited the number of Residential Street Parking Permits. Ms. Dacey was absent from the December meeting, but Commissioners Eisen also favored this concept. However, she was eventually persuaded to turn future consideration of the subject into a Friendly Amendment, which passed. Unfortunately, Ms. Eisen did not appear to realize that, far from reducing the burden on PH residents, her amendment could further increase it. On-street parking restrictions were intended to replace off-street parking requirements, not to add to them.

The practical effect of the revised ordinance is to extend the moratorium on new construction, and anything more than minor remodeling, in the Berkeley section of the Hill. No such prohibition applies to the Oakland section, as we have seen with the recent major project at 435 Panoramic Way. To say the least, this is a very odd situation.

Despite the importance of this ordinance to PH, no member of the PHA Board was officially present at either Commission meeting, a fact pointedly noted by Staff (the Planning Department).

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