Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Actions Have Consequences: Ryan Lau part 2

While Berkeley City Council District 2 representative Daryl Moore says his aide, Ryan Lau, made a mistake in replacing an old funky garage with a larger living structure without obtaining permits or zoning approval, it appears the mistake is much bigger, more expensive and more problematic than simply paying a higher fee. Lau was ordered to cease construction on Monday, March 15, 2010, by Building Inspector Greg Heidenreich.

Berkeley’s building code specifically sets out ‘Development Standards for Accessory Dwelling Units’ that appear to prohibitively restrict the type of development Lau has already built. Deputy Planning Director Wendy Cosin was not optimistic that the city would be able to approve Lau’s project without a variance and in the city of Berkeley obtaining a variance is nearly impossible she acknowledged.

The first obstacle to issuing a permit is the size of Lau’s ‘Accessory Dwelling Unit. The estimated size of Lau’s nearly finished project is 432 square feet. According to the code (Section 23D.16.040), such structures are restricted to 300 square feet or less. The specific language of the code states: “No more than 25% of the gross floor area of the main dwelling in existence prior to the construction of the Accessory Dwelling Unit,” with an exemption that allows a building up to 300 square foot if the main house is smaller than 1,200 square feet. Lau’s main dwelling is less than 1,200 square feet but the building he has nearly completed is almost 44% over the upper limit.

Additionally the code specifically excludes building less than four feet from the property line. Apparently Lau has built the entire structure on the side property line
“In no case can zoning approve this if the setbacks are less than four feet,” said Deputy Director Cosin. “If he doesn’t meet the standards he’ll need a variance and it is very, very difficult to get a variance.”

Ironically, any person seeking a variance from local building codes has to get approval from the Zoning Adjustment Board. Ryan Lau is Councilman Darryl Moore’s appointee to that board.

While one local reporter stated that in attempting to resolve this issue promptly Berkeley’s Planning Department was expediting Lau’s permit, Cosin insisted that wasn’t the case.

“We’re handling this the same way we would handle any other violation,” Cosin said.
Any other treatment would be preferential and ethically improper. It is possible for Lau to pay an extra fee to expedite the permit process, which is available to any applicant, but Cosin said that Lau is “not at the building permit stage.”

As of Wednesday, March 17, 2010, Lau has not applied for zoning clearance which he must do before he can turn in a building permit application.

If Lau does not get a variance, the council-aide would have to tear the structure down, Cosin said.

While neither Lau, nor District One Councilman Darryl Moore, nor Mayor Tom Bates, nor City Manager Phil Kamlarz, nor Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel (formerly of the city attorney’s office) returned this reporter’s phone calls on Wednesday, other city staff expressed concern about the underlying issues this violation has exposed.

“I’m confused about how that can be allowed without him resigning his aide position. He’s a city employee. Seems like a conflict of interest,” said one Berkeley staffer by email. That person requested I not use their name. “In light of your discovery, it seems the only reasonable action is to remove him from ZAB (credibility shot and not fit to rule on similar situations) and he should be fired as an employee (violated the oath we take to uphold all rules and regulations).”

Another city employee, who also did not offer his name, suggested Berkeley City Auditor Ann Marie Hogan’s office should investigate Lau’s ethical lapses.

Hogan said all city staff except the mayor, council members, and their staff and appointees, are required to sign and abide by a code of ethical standards crafted by her office and the office of the City Manager that specifically requires they adhere to the laws and regulations of the city. The city manager administratively adopted that code of ethical standards for all city staff. Compliance with that code of ethics is not enforceable with the Mayor, the city council or their staff and appointees.
The mayor and council members, as elected legislative officers, do not report to the city manager’s office, nor do their aides or commission appointees, Hogan said.

“City council staff are hired and fired only by the City Council,” Hogan said. “They are ‘at-will’ employees.”

Similarly commission appointees only refer matters back to the city council, they actually don’t have any ‘authority,’ Hogan said. The mayor and city council must approve all commission actions.

“It’s never a bad idea to adopt a code of ethics,” Hogan said.

Regarding Lau’s lapses and his continued presence on the Zoning Adjustment Board, neither Cosin nor Hogan was willing to comment.

Councilwoman Linda Maio (her aide is Nicole Drake, Lau’s tenant and partner) was more forth coming.

“No,”Maio responded bluntly when asked if Lau should remain on the Zoning Adjustment Board. “I think not!”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rules are for Fools: ZAB Commish Ryan Lau builds without permits

Dear Reader.
There are two types of people in Berkeley: rubes like you and me, and there are the elite. The normal rules that rubes live, bleed, and die by don’t apply to the elite. The elite needn’t follow the well-established required procedures nor abide by municipal regulations. They’re special and they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for them.

One of Berkeley’s most onerous departments of rules and regulations is its Building Department. If the average citizen rube wants to replace a water heater, stove or even a light switch, the law says he has to pull a building permit. If the rube want to repair his front porch, he has to turn in working drawings and a lot map, and pay hundreds of dollars to get said building permit. I know from personal experience.

Heaven forbid after buying your 1,145 square-foot house for $435,000 less than a year ago, as Ryan Lau did, you should want to tear down your miniscule old and decrepit garage built in the 1920s and replace it with a lovely residential structure twice as large and located far less than the required four feet from the property line. If a rube wanted to build too close to his neighbor’s property he would have to get a ‘Use Permit,’ which would likely require a public hearing and cost the rube thousands and thousands of dollars. He might even end up in front of the Zoning Adjustment Board!

Of course if the person who wants to do such a thing is named Ryan Lau, Councilman Darryl Moore’s long-time aide and appointed Commissioner to the Zoning Adjustments Board, rules mean nothing.

Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Ryan simply tore down (without a demolition permit) all but the front of his funky old 10x20 foot garage and replaced it on the property line with an elegant residential-style structure more than twice as large (roughly 12x36 feet). Mr Lau left one wall of the teetering temporary front fa├žade of the old garage still standing precariously, the better to hide the massive construction project in-process behind it. The new building is lovely and substantial: taller, wider, nearly twice as long. It offers the proud owner lovely wide windows and double French doors in front, and what looks like a bathroom, rear entrance and bedroom in the back.

Mr Lau, the well-paid Aide to Councilman Darryl Moore from District 2, didn’t apply for a use permit for such a magnificent project according to Aaron Sage, Senior Planner at City of Berkeley. Mr Sage was manning the Zoning Department desk when I submitted my request for information. After researching the issue Mr Sage looked quite uncomfortable saying that no Use Permit, nor any other zoning permit had been issued.

It seems Mr Lau didn’t bother to apply for a building permit either according to two different Building Department employees who researched the question for me when I submitted my official written request at the building department’s information counter. Normally a building permit would require zoning approval, site plans, building plans, neighborhood meetings, and probably a zoning adjustment hearing (in front of Mr Lau and/or his friends on the board)!

When I went to Mr Lau’s house to speak with the owner and see and photograph this extravagant violation of the city’s building and zoning codes, a woman, who I assumed was Nicole Drake, Mr Lau’s significant other, came out of the house and screamed threats at me repeatedly and claimed she called the police. Unfortunately she refused to identify herself or to speak to me about the construction project. There was no work-card/permit posted anywhere in sight, as is required by regulation. Ironically enough Ms Drake is also employed by the city of Berkeley. She is District 1 Councilwoman Linda Maio’s well-paid Aide.

Like many in Berkeley, over the years I have become more than a little familiar with the workings of code enforcement. I have been red-tagged (an immediate work-stop-order) by the city numerous times, typically for doing minor repairs to my home, and once for work I wasn’t doing!

My son, Asa Dodsworth, has had Gregory Daniel, Berkeley’s chief code enforcer, and Maurice Norrise, Mr Daniel’s subordinate, at his home so frequently he wonders whether he could legally charge them rent. Through much effort Asa has managed to get the city to reduce the fines imposed against him for planting vegetables in his median strip and similar such extravagances reduced to only several thousand dollars from a much, much higher figure, but the city continues to bagger and harass him relentlessly.

Many years ago Berkeley’s building department cited me personally for most of the entire Uniform Building Code (according to Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman). All for naught, Commissioner Rantzman dismissed every citation. When this mayor’s wife was our mayor, I was again cited for new laws they were making up almost as quickly as they were writing the citations. Again for naught, the city promptly rewrote its new laws several times before deleting them entirely.

I attempted to contact Mayor Tom Bates regarding Mr Lau’s violations, especially in light of his position as a city council aide and a zoning adjustment board commission member. One of the Mayor’s Aides spoke with me, and then with the mayor, and then came back and took my phone number. I heard nothing more. I also attempted to speak with both Councilman Moore and Councilwoman Maio regarding their Aides’ involvement in this violation of the public trust. Neither called me back but I wasn’t surprised. The voice on Ms Maio’s telephone answering machine seemed to belong to Ms Drake.
I also spoke with Gregory Daniel of Code Enforcement. He insured me he would treat this matter with the same professionalism he gave to every other code violation in Berkeley. Mr Norrise said ‘Hi.’

It’s a real shame I’m not an important person in Berkeley. If I was important I’m sure the city would treat me and my son as cavalierly as the city treats Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Lau. It would be fun to just do whatever I liked without regard to the laws and regulations of our community. Much more likely because of this little report I expect someone from the city will soon be knocking on my door or my son’s door looking for forbidden flowers and vegetables or evidence of new paint and repairs. Berkeley’s that kind of place.