EL CERRITO -- After listening to more than four hours of testimony on the disputed condominium project Monday, the City Council voted to postpone a decision about whether to approve it for three weeks.
The project would place a three-story condominium structure on a half-acre site at 1725 Elm St., while renovating the third-oldest home in the city that is now on the site and preserving a tributary of Baxter Creek that runs through it in its current state.
The city Planning Commission on May 21 declined to recommend that the council approve a general plan amendment and a 10-year development agreement for the project.
Property owner and developer Edward Biggs of Albany responded Monday by offering to donate the 117-year-old Rodini house to a nonprofit for use as a public meeting space or a museum after he repairs it, instead of selling it as a single-family home.
The council was also weighing an appeal by a group of residents of the Planning Commission's April 16 decision to grant a use permit for the development.
After hearing presentations from architect Carl Campos and project opponents and comments from about 20 speakers opposed to the project, the council voted to close the public hearing and begin its deliberations at a special meeting on June 23 at 7 p.m.
The key issue raised by opponents Monday were the proposed setbacks from the creek tributary.
Biggs is seeking a variance from a city creek ordinance that prohibits placing a building within 30 feet of a creek bank.
The development plan calls for moving the Rodini house to the southwest portion of the property, about 5 feet away from the creek. The condominium structure would be about 7 to 8 feet away from the creek at its closest point.
Opponents say the plan is counter to the intent of the ordinance, which calls for returning city creeks to their natural state.
"In 70 years of development we went from having miles of creek habitat to almost nothing," Howdy Goudey, a member of the city's Environmental Quality Committee, told the council. "The creek ordinance was designed to reverse that."
Complicating the issue, the Rodinis altered the creek by lining it with rock from one of the city's quarries that were operating during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Preserving the rock lining, rather than removing it, as advocates recommend, would help make the property eligible to be placed on a list of historic properties with the California Registry of Historic Resources, according to preservationist Tom Panas.
Panas said he thinks Biggs' plan "has come a long way" in terms of what it would do to preserve the historical character of the home, the creek and other features of the property.
Biggs has owned the property since 2003 and has submitted three or four development proposals that were eventually rejected. Earlier plans called for placing the creek in an underground pipe, the condition it is in upstream from the property.
In response to questions from council members, Campos indicated that a 30-foot setback would severely limit the developer's ability to make a profit from building on the land.
"We could build two homes and restore the historic home, but it would be a tough one to make work (financially)," he said.
Opponents also criticized the length of the proposed development agreement that would give Biggs 10 years to complete the project.
Campos said the developer is ready to begin construction immediately once the planning department signs off on the project, but that he wants to keep his options open in case the economy takes a sudden downturn.