Berkeley certifies Beth El EIR use permit next hurdle

By a vote of 5-1, Berkeley's Zoning Adjustments Board certified the Environmental Impact Report for Congregation Beth El's proposed new synagogue at its Dec.14 meeting

The EIR must be certified before the board can consider issuing a use permit, which is necessary before construction can begin at the site at 1301 Oxford St., several blocks from the synagogue's present location. The board has 90 days from certification of the EIR to make that decision. The hearing on that matter is set for Jan. 11.

Although the board has nine members, only six voted. One member didn't attend the meeting and two were just appointed by newly elected City Council members and hadn't had time to familiarize themselves with the case.

The EIR took months to prepare, cost thousands of dollars and is more than 300 pages long. It addresses all impacts that the proposed new synagogue might have on neighbors and the community, from traffic to hydrology and wildlife to parking. Certifying the report means that the board believes all potential issues have been adequately addressed, enabling members to make an informed decision whether to give the project the go-ahead. During the course of Thursday night's hearing, the board chair, Carolyn Weinberger, and board member Gene Poschman commented on how thorough and well done the EIR was.

But according to Vivian Kahn, acting deputy director of the Planning and Development Department for the city of Berkeley, certification of the EIR does not mean the board will grant a use permit.

At the Jan. 11 hearing, the board will take public comment on that aspect of the proceedings.

"I imagine that we'll hear a lot of the same comments that were heard at the EIR [hearing]," said Kahn. In making a decision on the use permit, the board will have to determine whether the project is detrimental to the health and safety of the people who live in the area. "It is up to the board to decide what constitutes detriment, considering conditions in the area and the nature of the project."

If the board finds the project is detrimental, it would have to support that finding with facts. But, Kahn said, just because the board finds that some aspects of the project are detrimental, it doesn't mean that the whole project has to be barred. One of the alternatives the board has is to grant a conditional use permit, allowing the project to proceed but with restrictions to mitigate any detrimental effects.

Among the factors the board will consider is how the construction fits in with the city's master plan.

"You start with the basic premise that religious institutions are community facilities," said Kahn. The new site is in a mixed-use area consisting of both private residences and businesses, and is only a couple of blocks from the synagogue's present location. In preparation of the EIR, 53 alternative sites in the city of Berkeley were considered. "We evaluated all of them. Most of them were owned by public agencies and not available for sale. Others were in residential areas that would have the same problems as here."

The EIR did not consider any sites outside Berkeley.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will also consider the project at its Jan. 8 meeting. The site on Oxford Street was once home to Napoleon Bonaparte Byrnes, the first African-American settler in Berkeley. Although the home was declared a local landmark, it burned to the ground many years ago. The EIR concluded that the site is not a historic resource because it does not meet the criteria to be listed on the state register. But because the site has local significance, the commission will decide whether to issue an alterations permit. The commission can also impose conditions on the permit.

It there are conflicting decisions on the use and alterations permits, then the City Council will decide whether the project can proceed. And if either the congregants or the neighbors who have been opposing the project are unhappy with the ultimate outcome, they can appeal to the City Council.

"This is going to the City Council one way or the other," said Kahn.