Monday, February 27, 2023

Make UC A Good Neighbor v. Regents (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 24, 2023)

It's quite possible that my reaction to the first two pages of this opinion would be different were I to live in the same location as its author, Justice Burns.

The opinion begins with the type of thing that you sometimes see in high-profile and/or political cases: an express reminder that the justices are deciding the litigation based on law, not on other things like personal policy preferences or the like. Here's Justice Burns' take, which also (helpfully) describes what the lawsuit is about:

"This case concerns the adequacy of an environmental impact report, or EIR, for (1) the long range development plan for the University of California, Berkeley through the 2036-2037 academic year; and (2) the university’s immediate plan to build student housing on the current site of People’s Park, a historic landmark and the well-known locus of political activity and protest. Appellants Make UC a Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group (collectively, Good Neighbor) challenge the EIR’s sufficiency as to both. 

As we will explain, we are unpersuaded by Good Neighbor’s contention that the EIR was required to analyze an alternative to the long range development plan that would limit student enrollment. We also reject Good Neighbor’s view that the EIR improperly restricted the geographic scope of the plan to the campus and nearby properties, excluding several more distant properties. Nor did the EIR fail to adequately assess and mitigate environmental impacts related to population growth and displacement of existing residents. 

Two of Good Neighbor’s arguments, however, find more traction. The EIR failed to justify the decision not to consider alternative locations to the People’s Park project. In addition, it failed to assess potential noise impacts from loud student parties in residential neighborhoods near the campus, a longstanding problem that the EIR improperly dismissed as speculative. 

We are, of course, aware of the public interest in this case— the controversy around developing People’s Park, the university’s urgent need for student housing, the town-versus-gown conflicts in Berkeley on noise, displacement, and other issues, and the broader public debate about legal obstacles to housing construction. We do not take sides on policy issues. Our task is limited. We must apply the laws that the Legislature has written to the facts in the record. In each area where the EIR is deficient, the EIR skipped a legal requirement, or the record did not support the EIR’s conclusions, or both. 

Finally, our decision does not require the Regents to abandon the People’s Park project. However, they must return to the trial court and fix the errors in the EIR. As explained more below, whether CEQA will require further changes to the project depends on how the Regents choose to proceed and the results of the analyses they conduct. Ultimately, CEQA allows an agency to approve a project, even if the project will cause significant environmental harm, if the agency discloses the harm and makes required findings. The point of an EIR is to inform decisionmakers and the public about the environmental consequences of a project before approving it."

Those last two paragraphs, as I said, are a standard gambit. They're also 100% true, and I have zero problem whatsoever with Justice Burns' articulation of this reality.

It nonetheless struck me as somewhat unusual for a case like this one. It's not a fight about elections or a vicious criminal or the like. It's an EIR. Is it an EIR about a fairly well-known area, with a fair degree of history (People's Park)? Sure. But still. It's an EIR. These things do not typically result in a massive degree of public attention or vitriol. It's not a case about abortion, or the death penalty, or anything like that. It's instead a case where I would normally think the assumption of the reader is that the justices at issue are simply applying the law as their fairly and reasonably think it requires.

But as I said at the outlet, maybe my reaction in that regard is because I live in San Diego rather than San Francisco. It might well be the case -- I don't know for sure -- that up north, any legal fight about the fate of People's Park is necessarily (or easily) viewed as a political fight. One that people might well get crazy upset about, or about which someone might well confront you at a coffee shop or dinner party or the like.

Hence a real or perceived need to remind everyone at the outset that judges apply laws, not their own policy preferences.

I can't think offhand of a similar type of "political" EIR case that might happen down in SoCal. Even if there was a lawsuit about demolishing Mann's Chinese Theatre, or the Hollywood sign, or something like that, I doubt that people would view it as similarly politically tinged. Maybe offshore oil drilling might qualify; not sure one way or the other about that.

That's not to say that their the northern part of Cali has it right and the southern part has it wrong, or vice-versa. We're just perhaps a tiny bit different on that score. Hence the opening paragraphs of this opinion.