March 6, 2023
Is CEQA getting an update? According to a recent California Court of Appeal decision, some would say it is. Late last month the court ruled that potential noise impacts from increased student populations needed to be included in CEQA analysis for controversial housing plans in Berkeley.
This is not necessarily rewriting the law. The California Environmental Quality Act, CEQA, requires Environmental Impact Reports, or EIRs, whenever a public agency proposes to undertake or approve a project that may have a significant effect on the environment. CEQA already defined noise as part of the environment, thus any changes in noise should have already been included in any EIR. So while the court did not add a new requirement to CEQA, the application of the noise requirement is new and could lead to major changes in both EIR reviews, and ultimately in creation of different types of housing options.
The case is especially interesting because the major changes come in the form of an already-controversial context. The case at issue, Make UC a Good Neighbor v. Regents of University of California, is a battle between UC Regents hoping to create more housing for UC Berkeley students in an area known as People’s Park - the location of anti-war demonstrations and previous failed development attempts from decades past - and community members who fear rowdy parties and overpopulated areas because of the increase in student housing if the development is approved. The community members succeeded in their claim that the Regents’ failure to analyze potential noise impacts from loud parties in residential areas was an abuse of discretion, and the Regents are now forced to go back and determine whether any noise impacts from the proposed development would be significant. Critics say the decision could actually hurt the environment by making it harder to build housing within urban centers allowing people to use alternative transportation like walking and taking public transit rather than cars.
The UC Regents have already said they will appeal the decision, but if the state Supreme Court chooses to uphold the ruling, the new interpretation of the noise requirement in CEQA could allow cities, neighborhoods, and potentially even individual community members, to successfully appeal developments which may create high density housing - something which many California communities are in desperate need of.