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