California Sen. Scott Wiener introduced legislation Tuesday that would exempt the state’s public colleges and universities from an environmental review process that often slows construction in the state, as the University of California fights a ruling that would force its Berkeley campus to limit enrollment.
The legislation would exempt on-campus student and faculty housing projects at the UC, California State University and California Community College systems from the California Environmental Quality Act.
The 1970 law requires state and local agencies to evaluate and disclose the significant environmental effects of projects and to find ways to lessen those effects. It’s aimed at protecting the environment, but critics say it’s often used to delay projects and boost construction costs, even for environmentally beneficial projects.
Wiener said the state has to make it easier to build student and faculty housing in the face of legal challenges from neighbors who don’t want new housing in their neighborhoods. California’s public colleges drive the state’s economy and provide upward mobility for young people, the Democratic senator from San Francisco said.
“We’re at risk of losing that if our students can’t afford college because they can’t afford housing,” he said at a news conference at San Francisco State University, surrounded by two dozen student advocates.
Even if approved by the state Legislature, the legislation would not come in time to resolve the enrollment situation at UC Berkeley, which is being sued by a group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods for violating California Environmental Quality Act regulations and failing to address the effect of increased student enrollment on housing, homelessness, traffic and noise.
An Alameda County Superior Court in August sided with Berkeley residents, suspending a proposed faculty housing and classroom construction project and ordered the campus to limit enrollment to its 2020-2021 level of just over 42,000 students.
The school sent letters to applicants saying it would need to cut undergraduate enrollment by at least 3,000 students, sending prospective students and their families into a panic.
An appeals court earlier this month denied UC’s request to lift the enrollment freeze as the case continues.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom filed a friend of the court brief asking the California Supreme Court to block the enrollment cap, saying in a statement that a lawsuit should not “get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students who are our future leaders and innovators.”