Some of the most intense growth battles of the last 20 years have involved development of classrooms, laboratories, housing and other facilities by the University of California (UC). Local government representatives and residents in Davis, Berkeley, Santa Barbara County and elsewhere have complained that UC shoves development down their throats without considering local impacts or desires.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) suggests that the locals just might be right. The LAO found that UC’s planning process varies greatly from campus to campus, is not accountable to state lawmakers, and is not necessarily based on system-wide estimates for student growth. The report also notes that UC has never reached a “fair share” agreement with a local government for offsetting impacts of UC campus growth in the five years since the UC Board of Regents established a fair-share policy.

“[W]e generally found a lack of accountability, standardization and clarity,” the LAO reported. “This unnecessarily creates tension between the university and local communities regarding how much campuses should grow and the mitigation of the environmental impacts related to that growth.”

Although the report centers on UC’s 15 campuses and medical centers, the study could have implications for California State University (CSU) and community college districts. All are exempt from local land use controls, but the study makes clear that none of these institutions grows in a vacuum. Moreover, the report arrives only six months after the state Supreme Court ruled that CSU must mitigate the off-campus impacts of development at CSU Monterey Bay (City of Marina v. Board of Trustees, 39 Cal.4th 341), and the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected a college district’s argument that it lacked authority to fund off-site traffic improvements (County of San Diego v. Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Dist., (2006) 141 Cal.App.4th 86) (see CP&DR Legal Digest, September 2006).

Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who requested the LAO study, said the report should provide a step toward a new UC planning process.

“The current system is broken. We need to do something better,” Laird said. “I’m just excited that there can now be a civil discussion about this issue based on the facts.”

The LAO report specifically addresses long range development plans (LRDPs) prepared by individual campuses. The documents are master growth plans covering 10- to 20-year periods. The Board of Regents adopts the plans, which are prepared by campus administrators. The LAO examined LRDP processes in Davis, Santa Cruz and Riverside, as well as system-wide planning practices.

The LAO made six major findings:
• There is a lack of state accountability and oversight.
• No standardized process for public participation exists.
• There has been minimal system-wide coordination in projecting enrollment for recent long-range plans.
• Campuses primarily want to expand graduate enrollment.
• The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process lacks clarity.
• No UC campus has reached a “fair share” agreement.

Based on these findings, the LAO recommended greater legislative oversight, a standard approach for soliciting public input, projecting growth on a system-wide basis, more summer classes to better utilize facilities, clarifying the CEQA Guidelines, and a report by UC on ensuring that fair share agreements are reached.

“We’re not criticizing any component of an LRDP or the regents for approving it,” said Anthony Simbol, who prepared the LAO report. “But I think the Legislature needs to know what a campus is planning for.”

Jennifer Ward, a UC office of the president spokeswoman, questioned the report’s recommendations. She said UC has never been interested in a standardized approach to campus planning.

“Berkeley as a community is different from Davis. Merced is different from Los Angeles,” Ward said. “The university has felt from the beginning that the campuses make development decisions on their own rather than based on a standardized approach.”

Ward also said that while no fair-share agreement has been reached under a new process, “we have contributed millions of dollars to mitigate any sort of impact we create.”

The LAO found that while UC has prepared system-wide enrollment projections through the 2010-11 school year, campuses have adopted LRDPs extending beyond that timeframe, meaning that campuses made their own enrollment estimates. Some of these estimates are based on desires to create new graduate and professional programs such as law schools. Thus, the LRDP is really a policy document, and UC expects the Legislature to fund implementation — even though the Legislature has no say over LRDPs, Simbol noted.

“The level of growth — is it necessary? Those are important policy questions. We shouldn’t just assume what the university wants is the right thing to do,” Simbol said.

Ward said UC plans for the needs of the state as a whole, and the number of students is only one factor.

“I don’t think the Legislature would want to be in the business of real estate and growth. That would require more bureaucracy and hiring expert staff,” Ward said.

Laird, however, said UC has provided the impression that campuses must grow to accommodate ever-increasing undergraduate enrollment. “The LAO shows that may not always be the case,” said Laird, who noted the Department of Finance expects undergraduate enrollment to begin declining in 2013 because of demographic trends.

Laird said he hopes the report and subsequent actions by UC and the Legislature could lead to approval of fair-share agreements and ease local tensions — although he said it might be too late in his home town of Santa Cruz. The city, the county and UC are in an all-out war over UC Santa Cruz growth, and city voters recently approved two initiatives aimed at cutting off city services for campus expansion (see CP&DR Public Development, December 2006).

“There is a train wreck going on in town right now because UC is not addressing these issues,” said Laird, a former Santa Cruz city councilman. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to have initiatives going on the ballot.”

Max Neiman, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and former UC Riverside associate dean, said there is a natural tension over growth at every UC facility except the new Merced campus. “They are all in some sense constrained by the communities that surround them,” Neiman said.

Still, not all university towns are alike. The LAO noted that while Santa Cruz and Davis have resisted UC growth, Riverside has welcomed university expansion. But even in Riverside, Neiman said, low-income residents have expressed concerns about being displaced by UC expansion.

Anthony Simbol, Legislative Analyst’s Office, (916) 444-4656.
Assemblyman John Laird, (916) 319-2027.
Max Neiman, Public Policy Institute of California, (415) 291-4441.
Legislative Analyst’s Report: