California's landmark environmental law can stop more than just housing projects, the University of California Board of Regents discovered this week.
The governing body of the state's second-largest public university system suffered successive adverse rulings in two separate lawsuits. It is now being required to freeze student enrollment at one campus and stop the expansion of a hospital at another.
On Monday, the Superior Court of Alameda ruled that the University of California, Berkeley must keep its student population flat for the coming academic year while a more thorough study is done of the environmental impacts of bringing more young scholars onto campus.
A few days earlier, the same court ruled that construction activity will have to stop on a hospital expansion at the University of California San Francisco's (UCSF) Parnassus Heights campus while a separate lawsuit questioning that project's environmental impacts plays out.
Both lawsuits have been brought by neighborhood groups under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a state law that requires government agencies to study the environmental impacts of projects they carry out.
The list of impacts that have to be studied under CEQA is long, including everything from traffic and air quality to the effects on historic resources. What counts as a project subject to CEQA has also expanded over the years to include almost any discretionary decision made by a government official, whether that's the approval of a zoning variance or the closing of a school.
Because the law allows third parties to sue if they believe the environmental impacts of a project haven't been studied enough, CEQA has become a favored tool of litigious NIMBY activists trying to shut down development in their neighborhoods.
That includes the group Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods. In 2019, it sued the UC Board of Regents after it signed off on a CEQA-required environmental impact report of a faculty housing project. That environmental impact report, contended Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods, failed to adequately study the effects of the university adding 11,000 more students since 2005. A university growth plan from that year had projected stable enrollment out to 2020.
UC Berkeley had argued that because increasing student enrollment wasn't a "project" under CEQA, it didn't have to study the environmental impacts that would come with admitting more students, reports Berkeleyside. Courts rejected that argument, however.
Tuesday's decision from Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman says that the university, in addition to freezing enrollment, will have to prepare another environmental report on its faculty housing project that takes fuller account of the impacts that a growing student population will have on noise and housing in the surrounding community.
A university spokesperson told Berkeleyside that it should take six to eight months to comply with Seligman's ruling.
"The judge has vindicated our efforts to hold UC Berkeley accountable for the severe impacts on our community from its massive enrollment increases which they made without public notice or comments. UC Berkeley must now acknowledge those impacts and propose mitigation measures that will make it a better neighbor," said Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods in a press release.
Equally triumphant is the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition (PNC) across the bay in San Francisco, which scored a victory of its own in a separate CEQA lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents on Friday. That was when Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch ordered a temporary halt to any construction activity related to a hospital expansion at the medical center on UCSF's Parnassus Heights campus.
That project has been in the works since 2018 when UCSF got a $500 million private donation to help it expand its old and inadequate facilities.
UCSF has said it plans to add 200 new hospital beds, 762 units of student and faculty housing, as well as replace a 70-year-old hospital building that doesn't meet current seismic standards. A lack of bed space sees it turn away 3,000 patients a year, university officials have said.
That didn't sit too well with nearby community activists. Those 3,000 turned-away patients, they argued, pale in comparison to the 6,000 annual bird deaths the new UCSF facility is projected to cause. It would also shatter a 50-year-old agreement university officials had struck with neighborhood activists to not expand the Parnassus Heights campus.
Back in February, the PNC, alongside two other neighborhood groups, filed a lawsuit arguing the 2,100-page Environmental Impact Report failed CEQA's requirements. They're asking that another, more thorough report be prepared. A hearing on the PNC's request for a preliminary injunction against the UCSF expansion is set for mid-September.
While targeting different projects, and raising slightly different legal issues, both lawsuits demonstrate the anti-growth monster that CEQA has become.
Originally passed to prevent government infrastructure projects from paving over wetlands or chopping down all the redwoods, the law is now being used to prevent people from getting an education in Berkeley and medical care in San Francisco.
Growing institutions of health and higher learning would seemingly be things most people would want in their community. Unfortunately, CEQA gives a lot of weight to vocal minorities with the time and money to file lawsuits.