Column: Who Wins From California’s Most Important Environmental Bill?

Early in my marriage I bought an ornate mirror, more gilded than glass, which I thought might be so ugly it might actually be beautiful.

It was not. My husband promptly dubbed it the Shield of Zoltran, a made-up name (based on a cartoon) to emphasize its absurdity. He demanded that I return the mirror or get a divorce.

The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has become California’s shield from Zoltran, reflecting our ugliest tendencies under the guise of environmentalism and offering protections to those who want to halt development for reasons that often boil down to self-interest — no matter how much Their arguments are beaten in gold.

Despite its original craftsmen having the best of intentions – Ronald Reagan was the governor who enacted it – it has been abused for over half a century, morphing into a popular weapon for maintaining the nationwide status quo and shattering equity in the process.

Case study: Berkeley.

As my colleague Teresa Watanabe reported Monday, a CEQA lawsuit could force UC Berkeley to remove more than 3,000 students from its fall enrollment. These are the trampled ambitions of 3,000 high school seniors and transfer students, many people of color, who have somehow struggled through the hardships of the pandemic to maintain grades, jobs, extracurricular activities, and everything else to compete with one of the state’s best publics to be schools.

UC Berkeley said it will likely send out 5,000 fewer acceptance letters and will tell prospective students Monday that the school needs to make fewer offers to ensure fewer people say yes.

The ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge follows a lawsuit filed by a community group arguing that the university’s expansion plan is not doing enough to reduce traffic, noise, housing prices and, of course, the environmental impact. which would cause more students . The lawsuit began with a proposed complex for the north side of the campus that would have demolished an existing parking garage and built 150 housing units for young faculty with families and graduate students, and a four-story academic building for the nearby public school and health.

The community group, which Watanabe said it doesn’t oppose the project itself, sued to halt it based on the larger — not directly relevant — issue of the university growing beyond numbers it forecast years ago. The group argued that growth would constitute a violation of CEQA if it could continue without review. The court agreed.

It’s the first time a court has ruled that admission numbers will be covered by CEQA – treating increased student enrollment little differently than a proposal to build a structure – a precedent almost certainly set by California’s college system and possibly going to K-12 schools too if it stands.

The UC Board of Regents asked the court to lift the admission cap (which was based on low enrollment numbers in the pandemic year, making it even more devastating) as the case weaves through the system, but that was denied. The board is attempting to appeal to the state Supreme Court, urging it to make a decision quickly if it takes over the case. For the thousands of kids dreaming of going to Berkeley next year, this is an urgent issue — most admissions letters are due to be mailed in March. Several people told me it was unlikely the Supreme Court would intervene. We will see.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who has long campaigned for both increasing the places for California children to attend California colleges and building dormitories, called the lawsuit and freeze “stunning” and “frustrating.” He said it’s a legal transgression by eligible residents who appear to want the benefits of a university community without the encumbrances.

John A. Pérez, former chairman of the Board of Regents, called the freeze a tragedy. Pérez, who made it clear he was speaking only as a former lawmaker, said Berkeley’s lawsuit was NIMBYism, not unlike Woodside’s recent attempt to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary to avoid affordable housing.

Cowardly and transparent – my words, not his.

CEQA is a law that’s under constant attack from developers and others who rub shoulders with its cumbersome rules, but it becomes harder to protect when abused in this way, Pérez argued. This could be the second tragedy of this lawsuit: the jeopardy of an important legal instrument for sustainable and responsible growth.

I’m a big fan of CEQA when used for its purposes: protecting our environment, including fighting climate change, and protecting low-income communities that have for too long borne the brunt of pollution and neglect. I think the law could be strengthened to ensure there are more environmental justice protections in places where powerful industries are building high-impact facilities like warehouses.

CEQA does a lot of good, and when pet projects get arbitrary exceptions to the law, those exceptions can do a lot of harm. An example is the SoFi Stadium. Designed and built without a full environmental impact assessment, it now lacks public transportation links, a costly oversight that will force Inglewood and other communities to fund repairs out of their own pockets.

Several studies have found that the rate of CEQA lawsuits is actually low. It’s not misused as much as it seems. In nearly 20 years of data, an average of 195 CEQA lawsuits were filed each year. According to a recent Housing Workshop report commissioned by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, less than 2% of public works projects have been the subject of a CEQA lawsuit in recent years.

But what these 195 lawsuits are about should be better understood, and there should be ways for courts to better determine early on whether a case is applying the law fairly. Some neighborhoods continue to use CEQA as a cudgel to slow housing development during a housing crisis. That has to stop.

Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for UC Berkeley, points out that groups have sued the university multiple times when it tried to expand housing and facilities — including another pending CEQA lawsuit seeking to seek construction of beach volleyball courts for the women’s team Need to block under the laws of Title IX. Some of the same people who are suing over the faculty housing project are implicated in the volleyball dispute, Mogulof said.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley needs 8,000 beds in new housing to offer every student two years of on-campus housing — a reality Mogulof said it “must build on every single piece of land the university owns.” [near campus] and then some.” That includes the legendary Volkspark, where, you guessed it, a lawsuit was filed to stop a project that would house 1,100 students and 125 homeless.

Sleeping people and tents in a park

People sleep in People’s Park on Tuesday. UC Berkeley owns the property, but groups have opposed plans to build housing on the site, including shelters for the homeless. The mural in the background reads, “UC serves people, not profit.”

(Stuart Leavenworth / Los Angeles Times)

The state has already allocated billions to help colleges and universities finance housing (and universities have much to blame for not moving sooner and more urgently), and McCarty is pushing for billions more because Berkeley is no anomaly. Students at all California colleges live in cars, are crammed into houses, and in too many cases go to school homeless.

Critics argue that UC Berkeley is recruiting too many international students, and while this downplays the value these children bring to California and the UC system, it has to be argued that a larger proportion of admissions should be reserved for out-of-state students .

But people shouldn’t live in college towns if they don’t want college students around. Today’s Berkeley isn’t the Berkeley of the 1960s, which is painfully obvious, but neither is it the Berkeley of 2030 and beyond. We are a growing country with growing needs. That means dormitories need to be built in neighborhoods near the stately old homes.

California kids deserve to go to California schools, as do candidates from other places who will add to our diversity and strength. Using an environmental law to crush those hopes can only be ugly. Column: Who Wins From California’s Most Important Environmental Bill?

Tom Vazquez

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