UC Berkeley campanile
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods is arguing that UC Berkeley should have studied the impact more students would have on the neighborhoods surrounding Cal. Photo: Jerome Paulos Credit: Jerome Paulos
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods is arguing that UC Berkeley should have studied the impact more students would have on the neighborhoods surrounding Cal. Photo: Jerome Paulos Credit: Jerome Paulos

A state appeals court ruled this week that a group of Berkeley neighbors has the right to sue UC Berkeley to make it do an environmental review of increased enrollment.

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled on June 25 that the neighborhood group could argue that a Cal 2005 long-range plan did not sufficiently examine projected enrollment growth. The plan projected student enrollment would increase by 1,650 students by 2020. Instead, enrollment went up by 8,300 students by 2018 — a five-fold increase over the 2005 projections — but the university never examined those impacts.

The group filing the lawsuit, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, argued that the university should have studied the impact more students would have on the neighborhoods surrounding Cal, including their use of off-campus housing, which could lead to more noise and trash, the displacement of tenants, which could increase homelessness and a heavier burden on the city of Berkeley services, including police, fire, and ambulance services.

“The question before us is whether the alleged changes to the 2005 project—i.e., the decisions to increase enrollment beginning in 2007— required some form of environmental review under CEQA,” the Appeals court wrote in its ruling. “The enrollment increases have caused, and continue to cause, significant environmental impacts that were not analyzed in the 2005 EIR. Respondents (UC Berkeley) have failed to analyze the new impacts in a CEQA document and have failed to adopt mitigation measures to reduce or avoid them.”

UC Berkeley argued that an environmental review was only needed when a building or other structure was built, not when the number of students on campus went up. The court disagreed.

“So, the issue is whether the trigger for analysis is a construction project, or not,” Dan Mogulof, the assistant vice-chancellor for executive communications, said in a statement. “UC says it should analyze enrollment growth increases when it approves construction projects. This court says, as no court has ever said, that UC has to do the analysis annually when it admits students.”

Mogulof said UC Berkeley would appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court.

“If the ruling stands it would represent a very significant change with impacts far beyond the UC because for the first time it makes the annual decision to enroll students subject to CEQA litigation,” he said. “For example, if this case stands, a public school district that is faced with a surge in kindergarteners that it did not expect can be sued under CEQA for its decision about how many kindergarteners it places in each of the schools in the district. An injunction could be issued to deny enrollment of the unplanned kindergarteners until the case is resolved, which could take years.”

The court pushed back on this argument and said UC Berkeley could set a range for enrollment and analyze the range rather than a specific number.

The appeal court’s ruling overturned a 2019 ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge. The appeal court also overturned a decision that said Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods had missed the deadline for filing a case against the university.

The neighborhood group, which has filed many lawsuits against UC Berkeley in recent years, was ecstatic about the ruling.

“The appeals court vindicated our efforts to hold UC Berkeley accountable for the severe impacts on our community from their massive enrollment increases which they made without public notice or comments,” said Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods. “UC Berkeley will now be required to study the environmental impacts and implement mitigation for enrollment increases.”

UC Berkeley is battling other lawsuits around increased student enrollment

This is not the only lawsuit concerning UC Berkeley and its enrollment increases making its way through the courts.

Upper Hearst Development. Image: American Campus Communities
Upper Hearst Development. Image: American Campus Communities

In June 2019, the city of Berkeley filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley contending that the analysis it did on increased enrollment as part of a supplemental EIR for a housing project on Upper Hearst fell short. The supplemental report did not analyze how UC Berkeley’s 30% enrollment hike to 44,735 students by 2022-23 would impact city services. Instead, it focused more narrowly on the impact to the campus.

The supplemental report shows that enrollment at UC Berkeley jumped even more than Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods said. The 2005 EIR, which was supposed to last until 2020, projected a 1,650 student increased. The lawsuit said that number actually was 8,300 students. In its 2019 update, UC Berkeley said enrollment had gone up by 11,285 students.

The city of Berkeley has said that is costs it $21 million a year to supply fire and other services to UC Berkeley, but the university only pays $1.8 million a year.

UC Berkeley showed in its supplemental EIR how demand for water and other services had actually decreased over the years because of innovations

The city and UC Berkeley are scheduled to enter into mediation on the suit next week, according to Farimah Faiz Brown, the city attorney.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...