University of California, Berkeley researchers in 1995 conducted an exhaustive survey of the California Environmental Quality Act and declared that the landmark environmental law “could be improved” by toughening its standards and expanding regulatory oversight. They feared, primarily because CEQA does not do enough for the protection of the environment.
One might expect that myopic conclusion from university researchers, but the UC Berkeley administration has recently gotten an eye-opening lesson about of how this heavy-handed environmental regulation works in the real world.
Simply put, UC Berkeley might have to rescind acceptance letters to more than 5,000 prospective students for the 2022-2023 school year and freeze enrollment after an appeals court sided with Berkeley NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yarders) who challenged the environmental impact of the university’s housing-related expansion plans. On Thursday, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of UC Berkeley’s enrollment freeze. The decision means that the school will have to revoke approximately 2,500 acceptance letters from the fall 2022 semester.
Ironically, liberal UC officials may be coming around to the view held by conservative business leaders and critics, who have long argued that the law—signed in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan—needs an overhaul. Gov. Gavin Newsom might come around, too. The news should not shock anyone. CEQA has routinely derailed every type of construction project—allowing self-centered Californians to upend the dreams of others.
“If left intact, the court’s unprecedented decision would have a devastating impact on prospective students, university admissions, campus operations, and UC Berkeley’s ability to serve California students by meeting the enrollment targets set by the state of California,” the university explained after announcing an appeal to the California Supreme Court.
Of course the university has a right to this opinion, as did other officials from state. “The state has a profound interest in maintaining—and strengthening—its exceptional system of public higher education, with its focus on access and affordability, equity and innovation,” wrote the state attorney general’s office in an amicus letter.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco), who has done yeoman’s work standing up to the “get off my lawn” crowd that has limited housing development throughout the state, introduced legislation to exempt public universities’ housing developments from CEQA’s onerous requirements.
Wiener isn’t quite clear on the point. “CEQA is a very important environmental law that unfortunately sometimes is used in ways that it wasn’t intended,” he said. Well, it is indeed used to “delay or kill projects that are environmentally beneficial—like student housing.” However, it is not an issue of “sometimes”. CEQA allows “stakeholders”, for nearly any reason, to file lawsuits against any project.
In this case, Save Berkeley Neighborhoods sued UC in 2019, claiming the university’s plan to house additional students harmed their neighborhood. Many people living around major universities are upset about the inconveniences of being near them. People who relocate to rural areas complain about the smells, sounds and vibrations from tractors and cows.
NIMBYs will be NIMBYs, but CEQA gives them—and anyone else, for that matter—the standing to tie up proposed projects in court and drive up the costs. The group says it is “concerned about protecting the unique character and quality of life in the city of Berkeley”—the character and quality that emanate almost entirely from it being a university town.
The group is dismayed that many new students are—perish the thought—from out of state. According to the community group, this is a solution that will limit outsiders’ enrollment. A group of entitled community activists has decided that the thousands of potential engineers, social workers and teachers must abandon their plans. They are tired of seeing students in their own neighborhoods, which drives up the housing cost.
Never mind that “local opposition has also stymied the university’s attempts at building more student housing,” as Connor Harris wrote for City Journal. Harris, one of the leaders in the group, said that he agreed with Harris that more student housing needs are being met by the university. However, he did not seem to be keen for it to “build that housing immediately”. Harris preferred that UC build a satellite campus in a rural area five miles from his home in a less wealthy city.
In its amicus letter to the state high court, the group inadvertently touches on another abuse of the CEQA process. It points out that AFSCME represents many university employees and filed one challenge: “The union member includes low-paid workers who are unable to afford housing near campus due the high rental market.” To leverage their wages, many unions file CEQA lawsuits.
While I agree with the general disgust expressed by this lawsuit, and that exempts universities from CEQA’s provisions for the purposes of the lawsuit, it is time for California’s leaders not to let the outrage fester every time the law impedes one of their priorities projects. This situation is not something that lawmakers should be shocked by. Instead of exempting specific projects, they need to reform the law and fix the problem for everyone.
This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.