ALBANY -- Almost 1,400 signatures were turned in to the City Clerk's office on Aug. 16 in an effort to force a citywide vote on the council's controversial approval of the University of California's development plans for its property along San Pablo Avenue.
If enough signatures are deemed valid, the City Council would be forced to either rescind its approval of the development agreement or put the ordinance approving the agreement before voters. It's too late for such a measure to make the November ballot, so a special election would need to be called.
"It's putting it to the voters of Albany whether we should go ahead with the scale of this development," said Tarina Larsen, an Albany resident and one of the organizers of Keep Albany Local, which circulated the petitions. "I'm not against development but I don't think Albany has the infrastructure to go ahead with this development."
The referendum reads:
"To the Honorable City Council of the City of Albany, We, the undersigned registered voters of the City of Albany hereby protest the adoption of Ordinance #2012-04, 'An Ordinance of the City of Albany City Council Approving University Village Mixed Use Project Development Agreement' adopted on July 16, 2012, and petition the City Council to either rescind its approval of said ordinance or submit the same to the voters of Albany for their adoption or rejection at an election in accordance with state law."
The proposed development of university land was approved in a series of votes at a special council meeting on July 9. The council affirmed those votes the next week, triggering a 30-day window for opponents of the deal to collect signatures for a referendum.
The agreement bringing a Whole Foods Market and senior housing to Albany is the result of more than four years of work between the university and city officials, with multiple public hearings along the way.
Negotiations led to several concessions by the university, including lowering the height to four stories, giving Albany residents priority in the senior units and limiting parking in the development.
Also, the university gave a written assurance that if it ever developed the current site of the Albany Little League ball fields (which is on land owned by UC), it would pay for their relocation.
However, that promise played a role in April, when urban farming activists took over a portion of UC Berkeley-owned land known as the Gill Tract, planted their own crops on the property, and demanded that the university preserve agriculture their.
The occupied land is not part of the development. However, some activists claimed that the only place the University could relocate the Little League fields would be to the Gill Tract.
The activists, known as Occupy The Farm, remained on the land until they were forcibly removed by UC police in May. Since then, they have broken into the property several times -- including last weekend -- to tend to and harvest the crops they planted.
Occupy protesters seemed to breathe new life into anti-development forces, which led the university to request a delay in a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on the development in April, and then a series of commission and council meetings at which opponents of the development, including Albany residents as well as Occupiers, lined up for hours to speak against the project.
Once the petitions were being circulated, four of the City Council's five members attached their names to open letters defending the approval of the project.
Mayor Farid Javandel and Vice Mayor Marge Atkinson wrote, "Before signing such a petition, let's pause to remember the thousands of hours that Albany residents put into making the best project possible for the community. And give some thought to the unbudgeted $60,000 to $80,000 that a referendum election would cost Albany from its General Fund."
Councilwomen Joanne Wile and Peggy Thomsen wrote a column for patch.com in which they said, "The project has been under public consideration for the past five years. Based on community input at properly noticed meetings, changes have been made to the project since its inception. Compromises by both UC and the city have been reached, and the council approved the zoning changes necessary to let the project go forward. Now, unfortunately, a small group of Albany citizens along with people from other places are circulating petitions for a referendum on the zoning change and one on the development agreement. We ask Albany voters not to sign the petitions."
Their appeals apparently didn't dissuade enough Albany voters from signing.
Over the next month, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters will verify the 1,392 signatures turned in. State law requires the number of valid signatures be at least equal to 10 percent of the number of voters within Albany who cast votes for governor in the 2010 general election — which is 993 signatures.