California’s highest court rejects ‘people as pollution’ argument for UC Berkeley housing

Students of the UC Berkeley move into Putnam Hall in Berkeley on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

In summary
The California Supreme Court gave the greenlight for UC Berkeley to build student and homeless housing at People’s Park, ending a years-long legal debate over whether student noise is an environmental pollutant.

The three-year legal battle over the fate of a 1,200 unit housing project and the question of whether the noise of undergrads should be treated as an environmental pollutant under California law ended this morning when the state Supreme Court ruled the “lawsuit poses no obstacle to the development of the People’s Park housing project.”

The unanimous ruling, written by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, puts a coda on a debate that has in many ways been resolved for months. Last year, state lawmakers rushed to exempt UC Berkeley’s contentious housing project from legal challenge, resolving many of the thorniest legal questions in advance of the state’s highest court.

Though the case was about a single cluster of proposed housing developments on Berkeley’s counterculture-famous People’s Park south of campus, it caught the attention of housing and environmental advocates across the state, national news outlets, and state lawmakers.

The saga began in 2021, when UC Berkeley, as part of a broader development plan, proposed a new student housing complex at the site of the historic park, along with a supportive housing project for homeless Berkeley residents. Local historic preservation activists, under the dual banners of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC a Good Neighbor, sued.

Their argument to the court: The noise certain to come from future student residents amounts to a pollutant.

California’s Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies to study the environmental consequences of any project they embark upon and to report those findings to the public in a comprehensive study. UC Berkeley, the suit argued, had failed to assess the effect of student noise in that study.

After an appellate court judge ruled against UC Berkeley in 2023, legislators and Newsom whipped up a law specifying that “noise generated by project occupants and their guests” does not have “a significant effect on the environment for residential projects” under the California Environmental Quality Act. The new law also exempted universities from having to consider alternative development sites to comply with environmental act, shielding UC Berkeley from a related legal challenge.

That all left California’s highest court with relatively little to decide in today’s ruling.

At oral argument before the Supreme Court last April, even Thomas Lippe, the lawyer representing the neighborhood groups conceded that the case “provides no platform to stop” the People’s Park housing. But, he argued, the new law made no mention of all the “social noise” that would result from the school’s overall development plan, which was meant to take into account projected student population increases and which included the People’s Park housing projects.

“It makes perfect sense for the Legislature to leave a broad requirement in CEQA to look at and investigate the social noise impacts of increasing population,” attorney Thomas Lippe argued to the court in April.

The court adamantly disagreed, arguing that whatever ambiguity exists in the new law, the intent of the Legislature was crystal clear: The People’s Park project should not be delayed based on concerns of noise.

The idea of building housing on People’s Park has drawn condemnation from a wide array of Berkeley residents, including defenders of historic sites, opponents of dense housing and left-wing activists who celebrate People’s Park’s history as a magnet of political protest and, more recently, a sanctuary for people experiencing homelessness.

UC Berkeley’s proposed project would leave 60% of the site as a public park.

But the lawsuit also became a flashpoint in the statewide debate over CEQA, California’s five-decade-old environmental law that is frequently used to slow or kill large housing projects for reasons that are not always obviously connected to environmental protection.

Clangs from industrial machinery at a factory, music from loud speakers at a wedding venue and even the metallic squeaks of playground equipment have long been considered an environmental impact subject to state environmental law. But the Berkeley neighborhood groups were the first to suggest that the sounds emanating from the future residents of a project going about their day-to-day activities should also be taken into account by the state statute.

Advocating her bill to reverse last year’s appellate ruling, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks warned that such a legal argument would open the door to other forms of discrimination under the guise of concerns of noise. “This could be used as a tool to keep communities of color out,” the Oakland Democrat told CalMatters last year.

With today’s ruling, UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson said in a statement that it will be “turning its attention to the timeline for resuming construction now that all legal challenges have been resolved.”

“We are grateful for the strong and ongoing support this project has received from the majority of Berkeley students, community members, advocates for the unhoused, the city’s elected leaders, the state Legislature, and the governor,” he said.

Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this story.

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *