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CA Supreme Court Holds CEQA Does Not Cover Social Noise from Residential Projects, Clearing Way for UC Berkeley’s Housing Project at People’s Park

So-called “social noise”—i.e., noise created by human voices—is not an environmental impact required by the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) to be analyzed for residential projects, the California Supreme Court ruled on June 6, 2024, in Make UC a Good Neighbor v The Regents of the University of California.

The unanimous ruling brought an end to a years-long challenge to the University of California’s (“UC”) proposed housing project on the highly controversial site known as People’s Park in Berkeley.

Recognizing the State’s widespread housing crisis, UC Berkeley identified construction of new housing for students and faculty as one of its goals in its latest planning document, the 2021 Long Range Development Plan (“2021 LRDP”).

In September 2021, the Regents certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the 2021 LRDP and the construction of two development projects, including what became to be known as the People’s Park project. The People’s Park project proposed adding 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 UC.

A month later, petitioners brought a CEQA lawsuit, objecting to UC building housing on People’s Park. Petitioners challenged the EIR and the 2021 LRDP and People’s Park project approvals on the grounds, that among other things, UC failed to adequately assess social noise impacts and that the EIR did not consider alternative locations for the People’s Park project.

After the trial court denied the petition, petitioners appealed. The First District Court of Appeal, reversing the trial court, concluded the EIR failed to assess social noise impacts in residential neighborhoods and failed to consider alternative locations for the People’s Park project. The Supreme Court granted the UC’s petition for review. While case was pending at the Supreme Court, the Legislature proposed an amendment to CEQA—AB 1307—in response to the Court of Appeal’s decision. AB 1307 provided that “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.” Governor Newsom signed AB 1307 into law in September 2023.

The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision, holding that AB 1307 applies to both the People’s Park project and the 2021 LRDP. The Court took an expansive view of “residential projects” under AB 1307 to hold that the statute encompasses land use planning activities to the extent it concerns residential development. This confirmed AB 1307’s broad reach to prevent the need for analyzing social noise for a wide range of agency decisions affecting residential development.

AB 1307 also eliminated the requirement for UC to analyze alternative locations for the People Park’s project. Petitioners conceded, and the Supreme Court agreed, that AB 1307 mooted their alternatives argument.

This decision gives UC the greenlight to proceed with the much-needed housing project at People’s Park. It also reinforces that “no matter how important its original purpose, CEQA remains a legislative act, subject to legislative limitation and legislative amendment”—even in the middle of ongoing litigation.