California Supreme Court Upholds UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan and People’s Park Housing Project Approvals

The California Supreme Court recently upheld the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for the Long Range Development Plan (“LRDP”) for the University of California Berkeley (“UC Berkeley”) and a controversial housing project at a site known as People’s Park. In so doing, it applied the principle that “no matter how important its original purpose, [CEQA] remains a legislative act, subject to legislative limitation and legislative amendment.”

The Court’s ruling in Make UC a Good Neighbor v. Regents of the University of California involved a challenge brought by project opponents against UC Berkeley’s EIR for its LRDP and a specific housing project at People’s Park. The LRDP is a broad plan for UC Berkeley’s long-term physical development, including land use designations, the location of buildings, and infrastructure systems. It plans for the addition of 11,730 new student beds to accommodate long-term enrollment projections. The People’s Park housing project would develop 1,113 student beds, 1.7 acres of open landscape, and 125 affordable and supportive housing beds for lower income or formerly homeless individuals not affiliated with UC Berkeley.

Project opponents argued that the EIR failed to consider environmental impacts from “social noise” (i.e., vocal noise generated by students at parties or walking late at night), and that the EIR failed to adequately consider alternative locations other than People’s Park for the housing project. Although the trial court ruled in favor of UC Berkeley, the Court of Appeal agreed with project opponents on those two issues.

After the California Supreme Court granted review, but before oral arguments in the case, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill (“AB”) 1307, which amended CEQA by adding two sections to the Public Resources Code: (1) section 21085, which provides that noise generated by project occupants and their guests is not a significant effect on the environment under CEQA for “residential projects”; and (2) section 21085.2, which provides that institutes of public higher education, in an EIR for a residential or mixed-use housing project, are not required to consider alternatives to the location of a proposed project if certain requirements are met.[1]

Project opponents conceded that under AB 1307, the EIR was not required to analyze social noise from or potential alternative locations to development at People’s Park. The Court confirmed that in mandamus proceedings (such as CEQA actions), “a reviewing court applies the law that is current at the time of judgment in the reviewing court.” The project opponents, however, argued that their LRDP social noise claim remained viable because AB 1307 exempted only “residential projects,” and the LRDP is not a “residential project” within the statute’s meaning. The project opponents also asked the Court to consider their alternative locations argument with respect to potential future LRDP projects.

The Court rejected both of these arguments. The Court interpreted the undefined term “residential project” broadly in holding that the EIR was not required to analyze social noise impacts of either the People’s Park housing project or the broader LRDP. The Court considered the statute’s purpose, legislative history, and public policy to discern its meaning and concluded that it was “clear” that section 21085 “should be interpreted broadly enough” to apply to the aspects of the LRDP at issue.

The Court also declined to consider the project opponents’ alternative locations argument with respect to potential future housing projects that were not before the Court.

The California Supreme Court’s decision gives UC Berkeley the green light to finally move forward with the student housing project at People’s Park, and also reaffirms principles of statutory construction and that courts should apply the law in effect at the time of their ruling. In addition, its broad interpretation of “residential project” means that not only specific projects, but also residential components of long-term planning efforts, should not be required to analyze social noise as an environmental effect under CEQA.


[1] These requirements are that the project must: (1) be located on a site that is no more than five acres and be substantially surrounded by qualified urban uses; and (2) have already been evaluated in the EIR for the most recent LRDP for the applicable campus.