ORINDA -- Officials are moving ahead with a plan to remove a locked gate dividing a residential road, despite an outcry from residents who have threatened to sue the city should the barrier come down.
Council members Dean Orr, Victoria Smith and Vice Mayor Sue Severson approved this week taking away the metal gate between Stein Way and Knickerbocker Lane that has been the focus of a battle between residents wanting it to remain and city officials moving toward its removal. Councilmember Steve Glazer cast the dissenting vote; Mayor Amy Worth was absent.
The decision follows requests made by some residents in 2011 to remove the barrier that has been in place since the early 1990s. Last year, police and fire officials backed the gate's removal saying it would improve emergency response times to homes in the area.
Other residents argued they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and service Stein Way and the gate's removal would increase traffic, endanger their children and drive down property values.
Some made a last-minute attempt to delay Tuesday's hearing. In a letter submitted to the mayor last week, they asked officials to continue the hearing because the attorney representing the more than 70 homeowners in the area had a family emergency and could not attend. That group of residents had retained the attorney last fall following a tentative decision by the council to remove the gate.
Glazer inquired about the possibility of a delay but Severson said the hearing had been properly advertised and should proceed as scheduled, noting that officials could continue the meeting if necessary.
Anti-gate resident Michael Low argued that the council had indicated in November it would move forward with the gate's removal and had an "electoral mandate" to continue the decision. He also urged officials not to bend to the threat of "unmeritorious litigation," calling it an attempt to require the status quo be preserved and warning it could encourage further litigation "on a range of issues where the council seeks to make change for the better."
Vicki Gallegos countered, reminding officials of the "significant" fee residents within the assessment district pay every year for services they argue include the gate. The city answered that the current gate had been paid for with general fund money and not assessment district funds.
After taking public input, Glazer asked if the Moraga-Orinda Fire District had evaluated a proposal from the residents' attorney to replace the gate with yellow plastic poles that would limit cars but not emergency vehicles. The compromise includes requests for the city to label and paint curbs to discourage parking and ensure "swift" emergency vehicle access at all times; adding an "emergency access only" sign and retaining a sign designating the road as "not a through street." Glazer suggested delaying the matter until receiving fire department feedback.
After comments from Smith and Orr, who said Orinda is not a "community of gates," Severson pointed out an accident Wednesday afternoon that blocked Stein Way as highlighting the problems with a locked neighborhood gate. All three then voted to remove the gate, agreeing with staffers that such an action is exempt from environmental review.