Building a mansion in the Berkeley Hills is easier said than done. Just ask Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Software and a local philanthropist, who has faced ongoing litigation regarding his proposed design for a 10,000-square-foot home on Rose Street, just north of UC Berkeley’s campus.
The legal action reached a new stage last Wednesday when the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ordered the city of Berkeley to conduct an Environmental Impact Report for Kapor’s home, after deciding that the location of the proposed home could present dangers to the adjacent area if the underlying land were excavated.
Berkeley City Council will consider appealing the case to the state Supreme Court next month, according to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. If it does proceed with the EIR, the city will provide a consultant, and Kapor will fund it.
According to the California Environmental Quality Act, all projects with a potential environmental impact must be reviewed, and if the project is found to likely cause negative effects on the space, efforts must be initiated by the city to mitigate any potential harm.
The proposed home, which would house Kapor and his wife Freada Kapor-Klein, includes a 10-car garage, requires intense excavation of trees and land and is “akin to an office building in both size and scale,” according to a statement by the group resisting the construction of the house. These grounds rallied environmentally concerned neighbors to challenge the design in court, a challenge that has turned into a 23-month courthouse battle between the two parties.
In April 2010, the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board approved Kapor’s design, reasoning that the design was a single-family home and therefore is categorically exempt from CEQA.
But after the approval, neighbors of the proposed building site mobilized to create the Berkeley Hillside Preservation Group and — using evidence from UC Berkeley professor and geotechnical expert Lawrence Karp claiming that the proposed design would have significant environmental impacts — then petitioned that the design be reviewed and voted on by City Council.
According to Karp, the main concern with Kapor’s proposed home is what would happen if an earthquake were to occur. Because the area is near the Hayward fault line, an earthquake could generate a landslide and cause damage to the La Loma overpass, located very close to Kapor’s property.
“No one studied what would happen if this area was excavated,” Karp said.
Despite the evidence provided by the preservation group, City Council voted in April of 2010 in favor of the Zoning Adjustment Board’s decision and approved Kapor’s home design.
“This isn’t a simple case of someone building a house,” said Arreguin, one of two council members who voted against the project. “I respect and appreciate the Kapors, but the project itself needed more environmental review.”
Following City Council’s approval, the preservation group took the case to Alameda Superior Court, where it filed a lawsuit against the city for denying Kapor’s plans of further environmental review. But the court ruled in December 2010 in favor of the city on the grounds that the design did not qualify for environmental review because it was not an unusual circumstance.
It was not until last week that the group saw what they wanted, and the appeals court reversed the city’s 2010 decision, ruling that the Kapor home was not exempt from CEQA and therefore subject to an EIR.
The City Council will meet on March 5 to discuss whether they will appeal the case to the state Supreme Court or follow the order of the court to conduct an EIR, according to Arreguin.