Los Angeles Times

UC Berkeley students are not an environmen­tal problem

- By Jennifer Hernandez and Robert Apodaca

Iupheaval and protest at People’s Park and across the country, UC Berkeley admitted its first significan­t wave of Chicano students in response to student pressure in 1969. Even then, the university had a housing shortage, prompting a successful effort to acquire a house near campus for the Chicano student community in the early ’70s. Half a century later, Casa Joaquin Murrieta continues to provide affordable student housing for about 40 Berkeley students.

The California Environmen­tal Quality Act, enacted soon after the house was founded, would have killed the project before it started, depriving thousands of college students of affordable, stable, proximate campus housing. We know because that’s what it’s doing today, most recently in the form of a court ruling blocking the university’s effort to build sorely needed housing in People’s Park.

Then and now, the “environmen­tal impact” of more student housing is in fact positive: More students living near campus means less traffic. It caused no harm to the environmen­t to increase the occupancy and improve the interior of an existing structure.

But Casa Joaquin’s neighborin­g, overwhelmi­ngly white homeowners could have used CEQA to demand costly studies and multiple hearings before Berkeley officials. City officials probably would have sided with their voting homeowner constituen­ts and used CEQA to deny our building permit applicatio­ns, just as Berkeley enthusiast­ically deployed cops to block our peaceful anti-Vietnam War demonstrat­ions.

More recently, a series of court rulings that culminated last year nearly forced Berkeley to withhold admission of thousands of high school seniors because the state’s judges agreed with NIMBY neighborho­od groups that population growth is an inherent environmen­tal impact under CEQA. Only a quick fix by the Legislatur­e headed off an enrollment freeze.

Now a state court has given Berkeley’s NIMBYs another gift. More than 50 years after CEQA was enacted, and in defiance of a 1993 amendment directing courts not to expand the law beyond what is expressly required, the appellate court invented an entirely new CEQA “impact”: noise from undergradu­ate parties. This arose from the NIMBYs’ demand to be protected from the “social noise” caused by adding college students to their neighborho­od. Students could, after all, holler or sing or play music at volumes audible to their delicate neighbors (who are already surrounded by students).

This newly discovered impact is dangerousl­y attributab­le to the future occupants of any unbuilt housing. NIMBYs can now argue that the noise that could be caused by any additional student or general population must be adequately analyzed and mitigated before any housing may be built.

Of course, excessive noise is annoying, and it’s also illegal when it happens after hours or with amplified equipment. City and campus cops enforce nuisance ordinances, and in an earlier stage of this lawsuit, the university agreed to a city demand that it pay for stepped-up enforcemen­t against occasional­ly noisy students — most of whom worked hard to get into Berkeley but are neverthele­ss young people living away from home for the first time in their lives.

The concept of “social noise” is perfectly designed to block housing in existing neighborho­ods. If this ruling stands, other demographi­c and individual behaviors could become adverse “environmen­tal” impacts under CEQA. Because apartment residents are likely to be younger than their single-family homeowner neighbors, their “social noise” could come from a colicky infant, bickering siblings or bursts of rebellious teenage music.

Undergradu­ates without housing, especially students who are the first in their family to attend a four-year university, drop out at an alarming rate, leaving with debt and broken dreams instead of a college degree from one of the world’s premier public universiti­es. Housing, in other words, matters. No wonder CEQA has been called the “law that swallowed California.”

Jennifer Hernandez is a partner with the law firm Holland & Knight specializi­ng in land use and environmen­tal law. Robert Apodaca is the executive director of the Two Hundred for Homeowners­hip, a coalition dedicated to mitigating poverty through homeowners­hip, and a co-founder of Casa Joaquin Murrieta.

 ?? Ben Margot Associated Press ?? JUST WHAT is their environmen­tal impact?
Ben Margot Associated Press JUST WHAT is their environmen­tal impact?

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