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Oaks battle is firmly rooted

UC Berkeley's long fight with tree lovers over a grove rages on.

June 20, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

In Berkeley's long-running battle over whether to save an old oak grove or build an athletic facility, one thing was clear Thursday: Despite a judge's ruling this week, the fight is far from over.

UC Berkeley, which wants to build a training facility for its athletes, and Stephen Volker, an attorney for groups fighting the plan, both say the ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller gives their side a boost.

"Here's the bottom line: The judge ruled in our favor on every single point connected to our plan to build the new athletic facility," university spokesman Dan Mogulof said.

Countered Volker, who represents the California Oak Foundation, among other groups: "The court ruling is a showstopper and will require the university to find a new location."

The two sides find little to agree on.

UC Berkeley proposes building a $123-million athletic facility on the site of the 85-year-old oak grove as a first step in rebuilding adjacent Memorial Stadium, long the home of Cal's football team but inconveniently located on a major active earthquake fault.

Homeowners, oak lovers and environmental activists oppose the plan for the athletic facility and the renovation, saying that the stadium would be unsafe, the neighborhood would be clogged with traffic, and the community would lose a rare island of serenity and natural beauty.

Activists opposed to cutting the oaks have taken up perches in the treetops for the last 18 months, and efforts by the university to remove them have been unsuccessful.

This week, even as they awaited the judge's ruling, university officials sent in arborists in cherry pickers, aided by police on the ground, to remove the protesters' ropes and treetop platforms. At least four protesters were arrested.

The university has long been frustrated by its inability to end the protest. Officials complain that some tree-sitters have pelted police and arborists with feces and urine. More than 280 people have been arrested or cited for a variety of charges during the course of the protest.

"We really regret that the situation in the trees has come to this," Mogulof said. "For the last year and a half, the university has been very tolerant of people who have come from outside the campus community and have illegally occupied our property in an attempt, in essence, to extort the university."

This week, to remove the protesters' platforms, arborists cut some tree limbs. Volker contends that might be a violation of an injunction issued earlier by Miller that blocks the university from cutting down the trees or starting construction.

In her ruling Wednesday, Miller left the injunction in place and asked the university for additional information.

One of the central issues in the lawsuit is an obscure state law that limits the amount of money that can be spent to renovate a building on a seismic fault to 50% of the value of the structure. The judge ruled that the law, known as Alquist-Priolo, applies to the University of California.

Now, the debate will shift to the question of how much Memorial Stadium is worth and whether the renovation can be done within the limit.

UC Berkeley contends that the value of the stadium is at least $593 million because that's what it would cost to replace it. Volker contends that with depreciation over the last 85 years, the structure is worthless.

Mogulof was optimistic that the university would soon win approval to proceed with the project.

"We fully expect that as soon as we provide her with the additional information she has requested, the injunction will be lifted and we will be able to begin construction very soon," he said.

But Volker vowed to keep fighting and take the case to the appeals court if necessary.

"We believe that the battle will continue until the university gives up, because we never will," Volker said. "This is the wrong place for this project. It's profoundly unsafe to the public and a waste of taxpayer dollars."

The city of Berkeley joined in suing UC because of concerns that the university's plan to rebuild the stadium did not provide sufficient structural safety in the event of an earthquake or adequate roadways for evacuation in the event of a disaster like the 1991 firestorm that struck the hills above the stadium.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said that he favors reconstruction of Memorial Stadium but that UC would have been better off working with the city rather than ignoring its zoning and land-use laws.

"It's unfortunate that we got to this point in the first place," said Bates, who played in the stadium as a member of the 1959 Cal football team. "We should never have had to go through this costly lawsuit. This has cost the university millions."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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