Our Backyard: A Good Move

The council is finally reforming a process that blocks Island housing.


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Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft led the reform effort.

Courtesy of Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft.

As we noted last July, Alameda has a unique barrier to new housing (see, “Privileged Government”). Known as a “call for review,” or sometimes, a “council referral,” the process lets any Alameda resident slow down or block a construction proposal by simply calling or emailing the mayor or a councilmember.

Alameda has had this rule for years, but it wasn’t much of a problem because it was rarely used. However, in 2015 and 2016, it was employed at least nine times to delay or kill development on the Island.

Last year, Councilmember Jim Oddie, citing the region’s extreme housing shortage and the sharp rise in the use of call for review, proposed to greatly curtail the use of it. But the then-council majority, led by Mayor Trish Spencer and then-Councilmember Tony Daysog, rejected Oddie’s plan.

In early March, however, the new council majority changed course. Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft proposed a modified version of Oddie’s plan, requiring a call for review to have agreement from at least two councilmembers for the council to take up the matter as a whole. She called her plan “fair and reasonable.” Oddie and new Councilmember Malia Vella agreed and voted for it, directing the city attorney to draft language to change Alameda law. Spencer and Frank Matarrese voted against.

Ashcraft’s proposal gained momentum after an egregious use of call for review in late January: A few residents convinced Spencer to use the rule to stall a plan by an Alameda couple to build a new garage on their property. Although the planning board had unanimously approved the garage, some neighbors objected, citing concerns over oak trees. The couple’s own arborist had approved their plan, as did the city’s tree expert. But that wasn’t enough for Spencer and the neighbors.

Ashcraft noted that the couple had to spend $4,500 on lawyers and experts to deal with the call for review. And in the end, the council voted 4-1 in favor of the couple, with Spencer voting against—but not before the garage project took up 95 minutes of the council’s time.

Ashcraft’s reform is a step in the right direction, and should help curb abuse of call for review. But the real solution is to end it entirely. If Alameda residents don’t like a project, they can file for an official appeal—just like residents of other East Bay cities do.

 

Published online on March 27, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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