California lawmakers are attempting to bypass ongoing litigation in the state Supreme Court to directly approve UC Berkeley’s student housing plan on People’s Park.
AB 1307, legislation introduced by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, would eliminate noise generated by people as an environmental impact and exempt higher education institutions from considering alternative housing locations during the implementation of the project upon the consideration of alternative sites in a long-range development plan.
The legislation targets two of the reasons the First Appellate Court decided that the university’s Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, was insufficient in February.
In the ruling, the court stated the university failed to consider alternative development sites and the impact of student noise in Make UC A Good Neighbor v. Regents. The court determined the project’s EIR must be amended to propose mitigations to environmental impacts to the extent feasible.
The state Supreme Court approved a hearing on the UC’s appeal. The hearing has not yet been scheduled, but Make UC A Good Neighbor’s argument would lose its impact if AB 1307 continues on its projected track and becomes law.
Wick’s bill was unanimously approved in May by the state Assembly and two state Senate committees, and is on track to take effect if passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof reflected the campus’s unwavering support for the project, in tandem with continued approval from Newsom and the city of Berkeley.
“If passed into law, the statute would be considered by the Supreme Court in deciding the appeal that is currently before the court,” Mogulof said in an email. “We also want to note that (the) bill would NOT exempt the project from CEQA and that the university, as required by CEQA, prepared a full Environmental Impact Report for this project.”
Deputy Solicitor General Samuel Harbourt argued for the Supreme Court’s review of the Court of Appeal’s ruling in a recent letter to Attorney General Rob Bonta to “ensure that there are guardrails on such noise-based CEQA challenges.”
The use of noise as an environmental impact has now extended beyond just Berkeley — in Los Angeles, it was used to prevent a development next to the University of Southern California campus.
“The opinion could thus be read to suggest CEQA requires preparation of an EIR for the sole purpose of studying purported noise impacts that are already adequately addressed by existing municipal control measures, thereby blocking or delaying essential new housing developments for no valid public purpose,” Harbourt concluded in the letter.
In a recent letter to Senator Scott Wiener, Senior Legislative Director Michael Bedard similarly found social noise to not pertain to CEQA as a major environmental concern, considering “social noise complaints are properly handled through municipal noise ordinances.”
Bedard said the classification of noise from people as an environmental impact shifts the focus of CEQA away from environmental and toward social impacts.
For People’s Park residents and supporters, this could potentially be the final stage of the extensive legal battle. People’s Park harm reduction advocate Lisa Teague, although committed to protest, is confident the bill will pass.
People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC A Good Neighbor found the bill to be “the epitome of special interest legislation and is designed to circumvent pending litigation,” according to a letter sent by the advocacy groups to state senators.
Both groups urge legislators to preserve People’s Park as a historic landmark and instead consider alternative areas for development, thirteen of which UC Berkeley identified as potential housing sites, according to the letter.
“People’s Park is a National Register of Historic Places site and deserves individual and special attention, and therefore this should be required in an analysis of alternative sites, which would not in any conceivable way obstruct California’s housing needs – needs that we acknowledge to be real,” the letter concludes.
Clarification: A previous version of this article may have implied that higher education institutions were entirely exempt from considering alternative locations to housing projects. In fact, the exemption from considering alternative locations upon implementation of the project depends on the consideration of alternative locations during a long-range development plan.