The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has become embroiled in controversy recently, with its latest application wielded to block UC Berkeley’s housing plans for People’s Park.
That ruling concerns an insufficient environmental impact report, or EIR, which is a key part of CEQA that requires public agencies to conduct a review for proposed projects that may have environmental impacts.
CEQA was passed in 1970 under then Gov.Ronald Reagan. It requires local and state agencies to identify and mitigate the environmental impacts of different actions, according to the California Natural Resources Agency.
In the People’s Park case, two groups of local activists – Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group – filed a lawsuit against the UC Regents. The plaintiffs argued that the university’s EIR violated CEQA by failing to consider alternative sites for the project and the noise pollution the influx of students would bring to the neighborhood, among other arguments.
The university is not required to abandon the project under the ruling. Rather, campus will have to amend the EIR. However, campus intends on taking the case to the California Supreme Court, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.
Mogulof said the ruling could delay the project “indefinitely.”
CEQA under fire: Recent calls to limit the decades-old statute
Recently, CEQA has come under fire from local and state politicians alike, who argue that the statute is being weaponized to delay the construction of much-needed housing.
In a statement regarding the ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the CEQA process “broken” and pledged his commitment to reforming CEQA to make the construction of housing more efficient.
These efforts to limit CEQA’s scope are already underway.
In the beginning of 2022, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, filed suit against UC Berkeley, arguing that the university failed to account for the environmental consequences of growing student enrollment – another example of CEQA in action. The California Supreme Court upheld an enrollment cap issued by a lower court which would have limited student enrollment to 2020-2021 levels.
In response, Newsom signed emergency legislation in March of 2022 to allow the university to work around the decision. It gave universities and colleges in the states 18 months to complete the environmental review required by CEQA, subsequently overriding the enrollment cap for the foreseeable future.
In September 2022, Newsom signed SB 886 introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, which provided an exemption from CEQA for public university housing development projects. This bill is meant to eliminate delays caused by CEQA lawsuits and help tackle the student housing crisis facing several universities across the state.
However, many universities — including UC Berkeley –- have not yet taken advantage of the exemption.
UC Berkeley offers housing to only 23 percent of its students — the lowest amount across all UC campuses. According to the court order, campus has increasingly enrolled more people than they initially planned to accommodate beds for in their previous long range development plan.
In the meantime, with the People’s Park development stuck in a legal limbo, many leaders continue to say that change to CEQA is necessary for the future of student housing in California.