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CEQA Alert: Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. The Regents of the University of California

The California Supreme Court recently denied a petition for review and application for stay in Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. The Regents of the University of California—a decision effectively capping enrollment at UC Berkeley at 2020-21 levels until the university prepares a CEQA-compliant environmental review.  The enrollment cap placed in doubt approximately 3,000 admissions for the 2022 fall semester.  The decision has important consequences for project proponents, CEQA practitioners, and university community stakeholders more specifically.

The case concerned an amendment to the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan that would have permitted construction of additional buildings on campus.  UC Berkeley prepared a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) evaluating the changes pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Neighborhood groups sued, alleging (among other things) that the SEIR did not fully address noise, housing, public services, and population growth impacts associated with expanded UC Berkeley enrollment, and, further, that the document should have evaluated a reduced-enrollment alternative. 

The Alameda County Superior Court ruled for the neighborhood groups.  The Court of Appeal upheld the Superior Court decision, effectively capping enrollment at 2020-21 levels until UC Berkeley prepares a CEQA-compliant environmental review.  UC Berkeley sought a stay of the enrollment limit, arguing that the school’s public education mission supported relief from CEQA’s normal remedies.  The California Supreme Court refused to stay the enrollment cap, placing in doubt approximately 3,000 admissions for the 2022 fall semester.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, state lawmakers passed—and Governor Newsom signed—legislation amending CEQA to provide that enrollment levels alone are not “projects” subject to state environmental review.  The law, known as Senate Bill (SB) 118, provides that environmental review should focus only the extent to which overall increases in campus population exceed long-range planning targets—a more lenient metric with which all UC campuses are currently in compliance.  SB 118 also explicitly makes unenforceable injunctions affecting enrollment, meaning that UC Berkeley should be able to enroll the full number of students it had planned to accept.

Although the facts were unique, the developments in this case present several important takeaways for CEQA and development in campus communities more specifically.

  • CEQA authorizes extraordinary remedies to ensure compliance with the environmental objectives of the statute.  Although SB 118 now restricts that authority in cases specifically addressing college enrollment, other projects remain subject to CEQA’s broader remedial provisions and CEQA continues to demand careful management of litigation risk—project-specific legislative intervention is rare, narrow, and should never be assumed.
  • CEQA takes a broad view of environmental impacts and it demands an equally broad environmental analysis.  And while SB 118 changes the form of that analysis for certain campus development projects, the overall obligation to consider community carrying capacity remains.
  • Limited housing opportunities and public services continue to present both challenges and opportunities, particularly (though by no means exclusively) in college communities, where growth and development patterns are often subject to additional levels of agency planning and control, mitigation responsibilities are sometimes ill-defined, and well-organized interest groups often create significant litigation risks.

Looking ahead, practitioners and project proponents may wish to keep an eye on California SB 886, which proposes to exempt public universities from CEQA review for most housing projects on university property—a broader change which, if passed, would likely create substantial new opportunities for on-campus development.   

Please contact Matt Adams or Wil Mumby in our San Francisco office with any questions about this decision or CEQA requirements generally.