EL CERRITO -- From organizing monthly swaps of backyard produce to advocating for preservation or restoration of natural settings, a local couple's grass roots local activism is becoming an important influence in shaping a vision of a greener future for the city.
Howdy Goudey and Robin Mitchell, who share a house on Elm Street and work in research on energy efficiency for buildings at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, are regular attendees at Planning Commission and City Council meetings. There they have taken a role advocating for parks, community gardens and open space and returning some of El Cerrito's mostly undergrounded creeks to their natural state.
Goudey and Mitchell also perform some of the same advocacy as members of two key city boards, Goudey on the Environmental Quality Committee and Mitchell on the Parks and Recreation Commission. Mitchell is also a leader of the El Cerrito Community Garden Network.
Mark Miner, chairman of El Cerrito's Environmental Quality Committee, credited Goudey with extensive volunteering to maintain native plants and remove invasive plants in the city's Hillside Natural Area and helping to establish a new way to mow grasses to reduce fire danger in the hills.
Miner said Mitchell has been a key proponent of community gardens in El Cerrito. She also advocated for a 2011 urban agriculture ordinance that allows residents to raise food producing animals and insects, such as chickens, pigs, goats and bees, and other animals in their backyards.
"They are a great asset to the community and they always have a positive attitude about what they are doing," Miner said. "I can't imagine the community garden program existing without Robin pushing it forward."
Goudey, who has a degree in engineering physics from UC Berkeley, credits city leaders for putting rules in place that preserve the environment, but he thinks it's important that the rules on the books are followed.
"Our community has a strong environmental orientation and a proactive city government," he said. "Once things get on the books, they should be used."
For example, in adopting its Creek Protection Overlay District, the City Council committed to enhancing and restoring creeks and requiring a minimum 30-foot setback for construction while allowing for exceptions.
These issues have come to the forefront in recent years, most clearly with a string of proposals to build condominiums on a half-acre lot at 1715 Elm St.
The city staff earlier this year recommended approval of a plan to leave a tributary of Baxter Creek that flows through the property as a rock-lined waterway and allow the property owner, Albany-based developer Edward Biggs, to locate a building as close as five feet from the center of channel.
"It's a much smaller setback than even the exceptions allow," Goudey said.
A Planning Commission decision approving the project was appealed to the City Council by Goudey, Mitchell and other residents.
The appeal met with some success on June 23 when Councilman Greg Lyman obtained a 3-2 majority to ask Biggs to pay for a hydrology study on the creek, which is expected to be completed in time for the council's Aug. 19 meeting.
The study will determine how much space it will take to return the waterway to a more natural condition before it was turned into channel, allowing a natural meander and riparian habitat along the banks.
The developer and the council will then have to agree about whether there is enough space to accommodate a profitable housing project that can share the site with the restored creek.
Goudey said he and Mitchell welcomed Lyman's intervention on the issue.
"We are arguing for the execution of a more well-thought-out development consistent with the city's own policies, rather than contradicting city regulations," Goudey said.
Mitchell, the parks commission member, says she favors converting the Elm Street property, which contains a historic house, into a city park. The park could contain a community garden and the city could restore the historic house into an "environmental learning center," along with the restored creek, said Mitchell, who is spearheading an informal community garden at Fairmont Park behind the city library.
Money to buy the Elm Street property could come from Measure WW, a 2008 countywide parcel tax for park acquisition, she said, along with working with a land trust in a similar manner to what El Cerrito is doing to acquire and incorporate the so-called Madera property into the Hillside Natural Area.
"Fairmont Park is the only large park in the flatlands," Mitchell said. "We need some aggressive park acquisition, to do some greenfield development within the city limits of El Cerrito itself."
The couple has also used the opportunity to weigh in on the city's San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan, which will govern development along the full length of the avenue, including around the city's two BART stations.
Mitchell, who has degrees in environmental studies and architecture, said that although she supports the concept of "transit-oriented development" envisioned under the plan, she thinks the proposed height limits for buildings are too generous.
"Infill development is the green thing to do, but five or six stories is pretty tall for around here," she said. "Stick to three stories."
Mitchell also would like to see the city recommend that developers purchase farmland to reduce suburban sprawl, in return for the right to develop land within the city limits.
"Cities should be protecting farmland," she said. "Make that connection between the cities and the areas that produce food."