Approval of Beth El building drags on — step by step

By March 14, Congregation Beth El will know whether the Berkeley's Zoning Adjustments Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission will approve the permits it has requested. But that doesn't mean construction will actually begin soon. All it means is that Beth El has advanced one more step in its journey to build a new synagogue and religious school.

However, those involved in this case think the decisions made by the two boards are likely to be appealed to the City Council. Ground can only be broken if the council gives the project a thumbs-up, provided that neither party takes the next step, bringing the matter to court.

The earliest possible date the Beth El project would make it onto the council's calendar is April 17. And that's not guaranteed. Depending on what else is on the council's calendar, Beth El may have to wait several weeks.

The long saga began in 1996, even before Beth El purchased the new site. The Reform synagogue hosted several voluntary meetings to hear concerns from the neighborhood about developing the property at 1301 Oxford St. Neighbors were not shy about sharing their feelings. They talked about creeks and steelhead trout, parking and traffic, noise and historical landmarks.

The synagogue bought the property and hired an architectural firm to develop plans. A stable of experts was also hired to address neighborhood concerns in a draft environmental impact report, or EIR. Then there were some more meetings where the draft report was previewed and again neighbors had their say. After a little more fine tuning, the draft EIR was filed with Berkeley's Zoning Adjustments Board. Then came more hearings where supporters and opponents of the project spoke up. After the final EIR, a document the size of a phone book, was filed with the Zoning Adjustments Board, there were — you guessed it — more hearings on whether it should be certified.

On Dec. 14, the board certified the EIR. Next came the issue of the permits — a use permit from the Zoning Adjustments Board and an alterations permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission; both are necessary for the project to go ahead. By law a decision has to be made on these permits within 90 days after certification of the EIR. Both boards have and continue to have public hearings on the issue. The Zoning Adjustments Board has also referred the matter to the Design Review Committee for recommendations.

And that's where things stand now. Public hearing remains open at both boards and until they're closed, no decisions can be made. Fortunately, the project cannot be stalled for too long. If no action is taken, the permits are deemed approved as a matter of law on March 14.

But be assured that won't be the end of it.

Anyone has the right to appeal the issuance or denial of permits and any conditions attached to them to the Berkeley City Council. And someone will.

The first time the matter appears on the council's agenda, it will decide how to proceed. It could affirm the decisions of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Landmarks Commission based on the record and just be done with it. Or it could decide to conduct its own hearing. Given the controversy and attention this project has received, that's what those in the know expect to happen.

Then the City Council will set a date for a public hearing. When that's all done and the public hearing is closed, the council has 30 days to make a decision.

Then, maybe, the whole thing will be over and with luck Beth El can finally start building its new home.

Unless, that is, someone takes the matter to the Superior Court.

Then the court will set a date for a hearing.

Despite the long process, Harry Pollack, a past president of Beth El and a member of the building committee, remains optimistic that the synagogue will break ground with in a year.

Although the road to approval has taken great deal of their time, Pollack said that synagogue members are not voicing frustration and seem to be respectful of the process.

"We're impressed with the amount of time that the city staff and city commissioners have put into this," said Pollack, an attorney. "They've paid a lot of attention to it. We appreciate their personal efforts."

And if the City Council nixes the project, will the synagogue go to court?

"I'm not going to speculate," Pollack said. "We're confident it's going to be approved.