Party On! California Supreme Court Paves the Way for Student Housing Project at People’s Park – Noise from Rowdy Students is not an Impact under CEQA

On June 6, 2024, the California Supreme Court reversed a court of appeal ruling that found that the University of California erred when its environmental impact report for a student housing project at People’s Park failed to analyze noise impacts from the students who would live there and did not adequately consider alternative sites.

Relying on the California Legislature’s passage of Assembly Bill 1307, in September 2023, the Supreme Court found that the EIR did not need to consider impacts caused by “student-generated noise” such as “vocal noise from house parties and from late-night pedestrians,” or consider alternate sites to People’s Park. The decision in Make UC A Good Neighbor v. Regents of University of California, can be found here: S279242.PDF (

The University of California, Berkeley has the lowest percentage of student housing per student than all other UC campuses. In response, UC Berkeley proposed to build a housing project on People’s Park – long-revered as a protest site. Project opponents challenged the certification of an EIR that evaluated both the specific housing project at People’s Park and a broader plan to long-range development plan (LRDP) for the physical development at the Berkeley campus. (The LRDP estimated that the campus population of students and staff would increase by 12,000 over from 2018-2037, and proposed the addition of over 11,700 student housing beds.) As to People’s Park, UC proposed to create 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 the university. In 2021, UC certified an EIR that served as a program EIR for the LRDP and a project EIR for the People’s Park project.

Plaintiffs argued that EIR violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to consider the environmental impacts caused by “social noise,” i.e., noise generated by student parties and students coming and going from the building at night. They also claimed that the EIR failed to adequately consider alternatives to the People’s Park site. The Court of Appeal agreed with the challengers on these arguments.

The Supreme Court granted review to consider these issues, but the Legislature subsequently adopted, as urgency legislation, AB 1307 , sponsored by Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, that said the university need not consider other housing sites and that noise from the project at People’s Park would not have a “significant effect on the environment.” AB 1307 added sections 21085 and 21085.2 to CEQA in the Public Resources Code. The Legislative Counsel wrote that the new law provides that: (1) “the effects of noise generated by project occupants and their guests on human beings is not a significant effect on the environment for residential projects for purposes of CEQA;” and (2) “institutions 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 the proposed project if certain requirements are met.”

The Supreme Court found, and the parties conceded, that the new law narrowed the scope of the issues for review. However, the challengers claimed that its CEQA claim regarding the adequacy of the EIR’s evaluation of “social noise” concerning UC’s LRDP remained viable because the new law “exempts only ‘residential projects’ from CEQA analysis,” and that the LRDP, including its asserted projected enrollment-driven population increase — “is not a ‘residential project’ ” within the meaning of the new law. As to alternative locations, the challengers wanted that claim considered with respect to housing projects that the UC Regents might carry out in the future pursuant to the LRDP.

The Court concluded that, based on the new law, none of the challengers’ claims had merit and reversed the Court of Appeal’s judgment. (The trial court had denied the original petition.) The Supreme Court held that the new law applies to both the People’s Park project and the LRDP, and that the EIR is not inadequate for having failed to study the potential noisiness of future students.

The Court found that the Legislature’s use of the collective term “residential projects” in section 21085 suggests that the statute applies to public agency activities “that relate to residence or residences that may have a significant effect on the environment.” The Court found the term to be ambiguous and indicated that a “broader interpretation of ‘residential projects’ (§ 21085) — one that encompasses land use planning to the extent it concerns residential development — appears to better correspond with the Legislature’s intent to specify the type of noise that does not constitute a significant effect on the environment, namely that emanating from “project occupants and their guests.” (§ 21085.)

The Court went on to observe that, by referring to “residential projects” rather than LRDPs in section 21085, the Legislature appears to have left open the possibility that certain noise impacts from a nonresidential project (e.g., a stadium, entertainment venue, or commercial center) planned for in an LRDP might constitute a significant effect on the environment.” As to the matter before it, the Court found that the statue’s purpose made it clear that it was intended to apply to portions of the LRDP that were at issue. “Nothing in section 21085’s purpose, legislative history, or public policy that would support such an anomalous result by limiting the statute’s application to [the People’s Park project] only.”

The Court declined to consider the challenger’s broad, and prospective alternative locations argument regarding potential future housing projects as unripe and seeking an improper advisory opinion. The Court concluded that the challenger’s suit “poses no obstacle to the development of the People’s Park housing project.”

While the Court’s decision relies on AB 1307 and green-lights the People’s Park project, its broad interpretation of the statutory language of “residential projects” should help the streamline the analysis and implementation of other, and future LRDP’s and similar planning documents for institutions of higher education that include some type of housing.

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