Environmental Law

What Happened When UC Berkeley Met the California Environmental Quality Act

A state court has apparently placed a cap on UC Berkeley enrollment increases due to inadequate environmental review.


At Legal Planet, Eric Biber has a series of posts exploring recent litigation challenging the University of California at Berkeley's alleged failure to adequately consider the environmental impacts of increased student enrollment, as ostensibly required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The lawsuit, filed by local residents who would like to stem UC Berkeley's growth, has resulted in a court-ordered freeze on UC Berkeley enrollments at 2020-21 levels.

The litigation and surrounding controversy raise a host of interesting legal and policy issues, ranging from what sorts of government actions are reviewable under CEQA, what sorts of environmental impacts should be considered, whether socio-economic factors should influence such review, the extent to which local NIMBY pressures can distort development decisions, and whether CEQA litigation can, at least in some contexts, cause more harm than good.

Here are Biber's posts, in chronological order:

From the last post:

The superior court's remedy in this case is what really has put the Internet up in arms. That remedy was not just an injunction against the individual project that was the trigger for the lawsuit (the Upper Hearst housing project) but also enjoining any change in university enrollment above 2020-21 levels. That remedy makes sense if you think of enrollment as a "project" – see my first post on that topic. But it also looks a lot like policymaking by a court – one of the reasons UC Berkeley enrollment has expanded, for instance, is real pressure by the state legislature on the UC system to expand enrollment for Californian students. (These issues are not unique to UC Berkeley either.) And here the policymaking is really problematic when you consider the policy context.

The UC system is one of the single most important programs for social mobility in the state of California . . . Moreover, a key driver for the UC Berkeley's increase in enrollment is an effort to expand the diversity of the student body and serve larger numbers of lower-income and first-generation students.

Yet it is plaintiffs in surrounding Berkeley neighborhoods – some of which are higher-income and whiter than the average neighborhood in the East Bay – that are seeking to (at least temporarily) shut the doors to access at UC Berkeley for these students. . . . And while the plaintiffs have made statements about welcoming increased enrollment if the university would just provide additional housing, there have also been statements by leadership of the plaintiff's organization that that additional housing is best put several miles away, on a UC Berkeley owned site in the city of Richmond.

But residents of Richmond surely have reason to object to university development there. Much of Richmond is much more disempowered and has suffered arguably worse impacts from historical racial discrimination than the neighborhoods around the UC Berkeley campus. And on top of that, the UC Berkeley site in Richmond is likely vulnerable to impacts from sea level rise from climate change. Even worse, by dispersing students over a wider geographic area, focusing development at the Richmond site (which is not close to public transit) rather than the central UC Berkeley campus would probably increase automobile usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Which begs the real policy question here – if you aren't going to increase enrollment in UC Berkeley, where would you do it?