Housing Policy

California NIMBYs Are Ruining U.C. Berkeley. Stop Them Before They Kill Again.

A California Supreme Court decision freezing enrollment at the state's flagship university is focusing the public's fury on the normally obscure, but incredibly consequential, California Environmental Quality Act.

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An early March decision by the California Supreme Court requiring the University of California, Berkeley, to freeze enrollment until it adequately studies the environmental impacts of its growing student body is focusing the fury of the public and politicians alike on the usually obscure, but incredibly consequential, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The law, signed in 1970, has the seemingly straightforward requirement that government agencies study the environmental impacts of projects they undertake.

But, in the 50 years that it's has been on the books, the definition of a "project" subject to the law has grown to include almost any discretionary decision made by a government agency. The number of impacts that need to be studied has expanded at a similar rate. The law also lets anyone sue if they think one of these impacts hasn't been studied thoroughly enough.

The result is CEQA's conversion into a "super statute" with the awesome power to grind almost any human activity, public or private, to a halt. CEQA lawsuits and appeals have been used has been used to stop new housing, new hospitals, new bike lanes, new burger joints, new solar plants, new marijuana dispensaries, and more.

Thus far, the state has taken those losses with remarkable grace and patience. A CEQA lawsuit forcing California's flagship university to slash enrollment by some 3,000 students is provoking an abnormal, but perfectly justified, amount of outrage at the law and its consequences.

In response, lawmakers and politicians are proposing some remarkably tepid reforms that will address the recent headlines, but otherwise, leave CEQA unrestrained and ready to kill again.

First, some background.

For the past few years, U.C. Berkeley has been trying to build a new faculty housing complex on campus. That naturally requires it to, per CEQA, prepare an environmental impact report. When the university approved the report in 2019, the group Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods filed a lawsuit arguing that it didn't sufficiently study the environmental effects of an increasing student population.

Their lawsuit contended that that student population increase was its own separate project that needed its own environmental impact report.

A pair of court decisions in July and August 2021 agreed that U.C. Berkeley didn't adequately study the effects of the increased student population on things like noise, traffic, and parking, and therefore, enrollment would have to be frozen at 2020 levels until a new, CEQA-compliant report could be prepared.

On March 3, the California Supreme Court rejected the university's request to stay that enrollment freeze while it prepared that new report. The result is that U.C. Berkeley is being forced to send out about 5,000 fewer acceptance letters than it otherwise would to get the desired enrollment cut of around 3,100 students.

The seemingly ridiculous result has captured the attention of commenters across the political spectrum.

"Processes meant to promote citizen involvement have themselves been captured by corporate interests and rich NIMBYs," fumed Ezra Klein in The New York Times yesterday. "Laws meant to ensure that government considers the consequences of its actions have made it too difficult for government to act consequentially."

"Thousands of future engineers, teachers, and social workers must give up their plans because a group of entitled community activists is tired of having students live in their neighborhoods where they drive up the cost of housing," wrote Steve Greenhut here at Reason.

The angry response to the state Supreme Court's decision in the U.C. Berkeley case has also provoked California politicians to tackle CEQA reform. Sort of.

When the case was still pending, Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration filed an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court supporting the university and arguing for the lower-court ordered enrollment freeze to be lifted.

"We can't let a lawsuit get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students who are our future leaders and innovators," said Newsom at the time. And yet, the brief that the governor's administration filed took no broader position on the law that enabled that lawsuit in the first place.

"This letter focuses on the benefits and burdens of the requested stay" of the enrollment freeze, it reads. It "does not address the merits issues surrounding the Regents' compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)."

Hardly a profile in political courage.

Only slightly more impactful is a new bill from California Assembly members Anthony Rendon (D–Lakewood) and Phil Ting (D–San Francisco) that requires courts to wait 18 months before freezing enrollment if they find a university hasn't complied with CEQA. The bill would be retroactive, meaning the court decision in the U.C. Berkeley case couldn't go into effect.

Rendon and Ting are explicit that they want to change CEQA as little as possible while still fixing the thing that's made the law national news.

"An educated workforce is needed to keep the state's economy growing, motivating the Legislature to bolster the number of college enrollment slots, especially for California residents," they said in a statement. "At the same time, we care deeply about CEQA… we cannot ignore the environmental impacts of growing campuses on surrounding communities."

In February, Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) introduced a further-reaching bill, S.B. 886, that would exempt student and faculty housing developments from being considered projects under CEQA, and thus, those painstaking environmental reviews.

"It is unacceptable for NIMBY lawsuits to strip students of their right to a quality education by blocking housing and effectively forcing schools to reduce enrollment," said Wiener when introducing the bill. "We need to make it easier for them to build the housing they so badly need on their campuses."

S.B. 886 wouldn't save would-be Berkely students from receiving a rejection letter. Courts have already decided—in a separate, active lawsuit brought by Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods—that enrollment increases themselves are a CEQA project.

So, exempting university housing projects from the law wouldn't relieve the university of the responsibility to study the impact of its student population on the environment.

In fairness, Wiener's bill is aimed at fixing a general shortage of housing on California's university campuses. It's that shortage that sends students into adjacent neighborhoods in search of housing, enflaming NIMBYism as they go. If it were to pass, you might get fewer Save Berkeley's Neighborhood-style lawsuits.

In recent years, the California Legislature has tried to carefully limit CEQA's reach by passing bills that exempt things like transit projects and the upzoning efforts of local governments from having to perform environmental reviews.

Even when these efforts have been successful, they still leave a myriad of other industries and human activities subject to CEQA and its crushing effects.

Leveraging the outrage sparked by the Berkeley episode into another piecemeal reform is the wrong approach and a wasted opportunity, argues California attorney Chris Carr in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

S.B. 886 "simply continues the Legislature's longstanding practice of adopting 'exemptions' for narrow categories of activities or projects," Carr writes. "These exemptions take enough pressure off the politicians to prevent comprehensive reform. They also ease pressure on the courts that have presided over the expansion of CEQA into a monstrously complex and convoluted body of law."

Carr suggests requiring all CEQA suits to be filed in California Courts of Appeals. He argues that would deter some people from filing these suits, speed up the lawsuits that do happen (a major cost of CEQA lawsuits is the delays they cause), and increase judicial scrutiny of frivolous CEQA complaints.

Another reform people have suggested is narrowing who has the standing to file CEQA lawsuits and administrative appeals. Right now, basically, anyone can for very little cost. That obviously invites abuse.

These wholesale CEQA reforms are necessary, but they're also very hard to do. Almost every special interest group has a vested interest in keeping the law around.

Wiener acknowledged the opportunity the current moment opened for wider CEQA reform in a recent interview with Politico, while also sounding a pessimistic note on the likelihood of that reform to materialize.

The Berkeley "train wreck has definitely highlighted for the broader public the problems with never-ending CEQA expansion," he said. "But, with that said, CEQA is big and expansive, and a lot of stakeholders have an interest here."

"There are situations in politics when we have something like a mass shooting, and for 24 hours or for a month, it seems like, 'oh my God, we're finally going to break the logjam on gun safety in Congress,' and that ends up dying," he continued. Better to pursue the narrow reform that has a higher chance of passing, argues Wiener.

One needn't share his enthusiasm for gun control to understand the truth of the political dynamic he's describing. CEQA-skeptical politicians have been saying much the same thing for years now.

"You can't change CEQA," said then-California Gov. Jerry Brown in a frank 2016 interview. "The unions won't let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements," he said, referencing their practice of filing cynical environmental lawsuits until a developer agrees to hire all-union labor. "The environmentalists like it because it's the people's document that you have to disclose all the impacts."

The difficulty of wholesale CEQA reform doesn't make it any less necessary, however.

The growth-destroying effects of the law have pushed California into a state of crisis. It's contributed to incredibly high housing costs that are forcing more and more residents to decamp to other states. It makes building the infrastructure necessary to serve the people that stay there prohibitively expensive.

The U.C. Berkeley fiasco is a rare instance where the harms caused by the exceedingly technical and complicated CEQA are apparent and intelligible to the average voter.

If anything could generate the political capital necessary to pass deeper reforms of the law, this should. California policy makers serious about fixing the law should seize this unprecedented opportunity. They likely won't get a better one.

NEXT: These Hair Braiders Might Kill an Idaho Licensing Law That State Officials Admit Makes No Sense

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  1. CEQA lawsuits and appeals have been used has been used to stop new housing, new hospitals, new bike lanes, new burger joints, new solar plants, new marijuana dispensaries, and more.

    If it stops just one bike lane, I'm inclined to give a more favorable interpretation of CEQA lawsuits.

    1. It's funny how laws like this are the greatest thing ever until they're used as intended against something progressives like then they suddenly become a threat to "our democracy".

      1. Funny how that works, ain't it?

    2. Yeah, the trend in California is more bike lanes, at the expense of car travel lanes and parking spots.

  2. Wait... THIS is what is ruining Cal? Seriously?

    And, if it's the education that matters, why not just build a Cal annex in another community? Or just another UC school in another city all together to deal with enhanced enrollment?

    1. They would have the same problem in another city.

    2. They added a new campus some years back, Merced, in the Central Valley farmland. No idea how that's been going, but I can't imagine too many students or faculty or staff thrilled at the prospect of Merced. Students want college to be party time, woke time, not farm time. I doubt the Merced farmers are thrilled about a bunch of woke party students and Marxist academics either.

      1. Why not? The bullet train goes to Merced. They can get there very, very fast. Okay, a little faster than driving. Once the bullet train is finished. Someday.

        1. the State system has added schools, too. CSU San Marcos 20 years ago is thriving now, taking load off of San Diego State. There are plenty of places you could create a campus and grow a community around it.

          Merced may suck, but tough titties. You genuinely can't expand Cal enough to make space for all of those engineers and schoolteachers and whatever the hell elses, regardless of the community around the campus itself, so find a new place. They could have beat Elon Musk to the punch and built UC Freemont instead of his Tesla Factory. Or they could build -- I dunno. UC Livermore. Or UC Santa Rosa. Handle a lot more than 5000 extra students and actually not crush the community.

          I may be bitchy though. There was a massive enrollment boost at my school just before I arrived where I went to college without the community support and it just flat out sucked. Housing was miserable, expensive, and didn't catch up for a decade.

    3. That's already been happening. I had the choice of UC Brserkeley back in the '60's. Once I larned the outrageous cost of housing in the area, I went elsewhere.. to a brand new (two years) UC campus just as you describe. Since then they have added I don't know how many cami for UC alone, and anohter pile for Cal State syste, facilities. The other university I did attend in the Bay Area had a campus so small I could easily run laps round it in the morning for crew training. I happened by there about five years ago, I had no idea where I was, could not recognise anyting from the El Camino, which no longer bisected the campus (a recent additioni prior to my attending), but was now a six lane look circumsribing the now ten or twenty times campus. The six story brand new dorm unit was the tallest thing on campus, visible for more thn a mile in ny direction. I could not even FIND it. Thefootbal stadium is now larger than the entire campus was back then. The UC campus down south I did attend used to, agail be an easy jog to curcumnavigate. Last time by, ten years ago, the sprawl was immense, three freeways nearby, ten story buildings hiding the four story ones I remember, nd it would take at least couple hours to walk all round the place...... haven't been by the Berserkeley digs since mid 1970's, but I'll wager that is also unrecognisable.

    4. If it really is the education that matters, just close the F'in thing totally and start over somewhere else where you can hire new faculty that want to teach actual knowledge rather than woke feels.

      A degree from Berkley helps me make the first cut on which resumes to throw in the trash.

  3. ""Thousands of future engineers, teachers, and social workers must give up their plans because a group of entitled community activists is tired of having students live in their neighborhoods where they drive up the cost of housing," wrote Steve Greenhut here at Reason.

    That's got me laughing my ass off. "Entitled community activists." Hell "Community Activists" were practically invented at Berkley.

    1. The folks at Berkeley have been all for this stuff until it bit THEM in the ass. Seeing someone hoisted on their own petard is always satisfying.

    2. Or, you know, attend some other college or UC campus.

    3. Future engineers??!! Das be all rayciss and shit! Engineering takes maffs and maffs be all rayciss and shit.

    4. BOOM!!!!

      This..........

      Ah wuz theyah when ot happunneded....

  4. Couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

    1. See? Populations vote for violent, coercive thugs, then when bombs come raining down, they act surprised and whine that "innocent" civilians are being pulped.

  5. “That seemingly ridiculous result….” You’d think the writer would bother to explain why it’s ridiculous. The law requires an environmental assessment for a government project. Increasing the student body is a project. And it certainly would have an environmental impact. Don’t blame the courts. Leave it at blaming the law.
    .

    1. A law probably created by the Party the overwhelming majority of the faculty of UC Berkeley supports. A law to tie up private sector entities in red tape.

  6. Might this legislation or interpretation of existing law provide a much to be desired method of acting against California’s ever growing anti gun, anti gun rights regime?

  7. Scarcity creates value. If they make the UC Berkeley so big everyone can attend, it's value will sink to approximately that of a community college.

    1. But think of the equity.

  8. The schadenfreude of seeing a monster turn on one of its creators is delicious.

  9. Reason, it appears your headline is backwards: " California NIMBYs Are Ruining U.C. Berkeley." It is UC-Berkeley that is being the NIMBY by wanting to subvert CEQA, not its neighbors.

    1. Although, the headline may be tongue-in-cheek, as that would certainly work.

  10. "THOUSANDS of future engineers, teachers, and social workers"

    Funniest thing I've read this year.

    Setting aside the dilemma of this regulation and Nimbys, why should the school cut enrollments? Can't students and faculty find short term off campus housing? UC campuses can't find some cheap satellite location where students can complete their fine arts theater appreciation courses? Airbnb and similar options weren't options back when I was in college.

    1. They can pitch tents in the quad - it'll be what they'll be doing in San Francisco after they graduate anyway.

    2. Math and physics is RAYCISS!!!!!

  11. Clearly, the only fair thing is to "nationalize" all residential structures within a 100 mile radius of Berkeley. And then eliminate all restrictions on admissions and enrollment, along with all requirements for degrees. Hell, just declare all those living in Berkeley public housing are scholars, and on the university payroll.

  12. You know, the really cute part is that if increasing enrollment is a project, so is reducing enrollment. After all, if you reduce the number of students at a state university, that has to have environmental impacts as well.

  13. Before any new laws are passed on CA, there needs to be extensive studies conducted to determine the environmental effects of passing laws. Could take decades to complete these studies, but if it saves even one endangered yellow-throated warbling turtle it's worth it.

  14. Californians are using the odor of Hoovervilles to drive mystical fascists out of the state. The more noisome and violent both looter factions become, the harder it will be for them to demonize and exclude libertarian candidates and pre-2020 planks. Listen to what the looter parties say about each other, and write that down on election day.

    1. And then try to win a general election slot in a "top two" primary as a third party candidate in a super-majority Blue district.

  15. California NIMBYs Are Ruining U.C. Berkeley.

    You can't "ruin" what is already ruined. Berkeley is a shadow of its former self.

    Let's hope that California NIMBYs put it out of its misery.

    1. Exactly. How does one "ruin" a shit sandwich?

    2. Berkeley was ALWAYS a shadow of its former self.

      1. Sooo, Berkeley is a shadow of a shadow then?

  16. On the contrary, I wish this would reduce the supply of more urban colleges (considering how far left that all tilt). Less Harvard Lawyers, Penn Greens, Yale ... Everthing would be a net social good to the US.

    Sure, lot of snark there, but Government has inflates the supply of Higher Ed with terrible loan polices, maybe it should fix it by reducing supply?

    1. There have been times when I would consider the best thing to do is burning all the colleges and universities down and starting over.
      The same for public schools.
      But then that would cost the American people tons of fiat currency.

  17. So the politicians want to protect government from being impacted by CEQA but intend to keep it in full force against the citizenry. By that I mean they want to exclude colleges and transit from these rules, so I would expect if government desired to build housing they would then amend it to permit that but not if a private builder wants to.

  18. Why the fuck are you Reason bitches flogging this thing so hard? Is UC Berkeley getting served a giant heaping of irony really that much larger of a story than, say, the Jan 6 stuff that you just. Won't. Fucking. Talk. About?

  19. "California NIMBYs Are Ruining U.C. Berkeley"

    Why does Reason make this sound like a bad thing?

  20. So? Am I supposed to feel sorry fro those people out there? Not!
    Let them continue their NIMBYism, let them attack each other for not being woke enough or not supporting LGBTQXYZ enough.
    In short, allow the liberal loony left to continue to slice away at each other. It makes for great entertainment and further destroys their chances of any positive results next November.

  21. I was around, and attending a UC campus when this wretched bill was slithering through the legislature. We all hoped it would not pass. WHY? Because we KNEW it would end up doing precisely this sort of thing.

    Orignially drafted to orevent things like drilling close inshore to plces like NewPort Beach, or preventing someone from ploping a monstrous hotel or convention centre right on the beach at Malibu and changing the long-shore currents soch that the new patters would take al the samd off the beaches just downstream (tide-wise) from the new devlopement. But we all knew it would be a sledgehammer to allow any miffed or snotty individual to fie a lawsuit, incurring years of delay and millions of dollars in costs to "do the studies" (most of which are 80+% imagination and wordcrafting anyway) because someone didn't ike the "new view" he'd have. Now, an oil well a quarter mile offshore from a ritzy beachfront neighbourhood is not a good thing..... but ploping a new housing unit on the Berserkeley campus is "damaging"? Few college kids can afford cars anyway, but they do tend toward bikes.

    Someone shouod do the legwork to substantiate a few cases of the unions abusing this law as a point of coercion to get an agreement to make the developed proejt a union shop once comoleted.. that's coercion, bribery, favouritism, etc. iand SHOULD be illegal and actionable. Of course, California unions are amongst the worst on the planet, and have been for well above a century.

    1. "Damned shame Mr. Developer, All those CEQA suits delaying your project. Have you considered how effective having our unions on your team could be in convincing people to refrain from filing those suits?"
      "Damned fine project you have there, seems like a little money to recruit the right allies might be cheaper than paying all those lawyers."

      Nope, unions NEVER engage in coercion, bribery, or extortion, they just point out that their friends have fewer problems. They are all about helping their friends you know.

  22. The big environmental problem at UC Berkeley is the massive amount of BS that flows from the place.

  23. California policy makers serious about fixing the law should seize this unprecedented opportunity. They likely won't get a better one.

    On the other hand, we could continue to watch that state burn.

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