Laurel Heights vs UCSF: Environmental Review Problems. Replay?

At the request of a neighbor who provided the relevant references, we researched the Laurel Heights Improvement Association v. Regents of the UC case. It is, he suggested, quite relevant to the current situation.

In 1993, UCSF famously lost a case brought by the Laurel Heights Improvement Association. The case, which went to the State Supreme Court, is so significant that environmentalists nationwide often cite it when they want Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) filed before projects can proceed.

“UCSF spent a lot of time, energy, and money in that losing case — only to try to now repeat the mistake,” he comments, “while U.C. President Yudoff is bemoaning the State budget cuts, program cuts, and brain drain from UC.”

In the Mt Sutro FEMA applications, UCSF does seem to be making similar mistakes. UCSF wants to avoid an updated EIR on the Mt Sutro Project, as seems to be requred by the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA].

In the FEMA application, they make repeated reference to an EIR that was done in 1991. The section relating to Parnassus Heights (that is, Mt Sutro) discusses the environmental impact of demolishing three existing buildings on their campus.

Why an EIR is needed at Mount Sutro

The 1991 report, geared to assessing the impact of demolishing buildings on the campus, does not consider the environmental impact of gutting 14 acres of historic forest, which would significantly change its character and ecosystem.

It also, in answer to whether the project is in, near, or likely to affect any type of waterway or body of water, answers with a simple negative. In fact, Laguna Honda lies downslope of the South Ridge, and could very likely be affected by the tree-felling, the changes to the mountainside, as well as by the toxic herbicides planned to be used.

The South Ridge Project. Laguna Honda Lake is the blue patch.

South Ridge Project. Blue patch is Laguna Honda Lake.

The guideline for cultural resources are clearly being ignored. Among them:

* Association with an event or person of recognized significance in Californian or American History;

Sutro Forest is clearly associated with Adolph Sutro. Love him or hate him, he was significant.

* Has a special or particular quality such as oldest, best example, largest or last surviving example of its kind;

This forest is the best and largest surviving section of the once-extensive Sutro Forest that covered over a thousand acres. As such, it is an important part of San Francisco’s history.

* Is at least one hundred years old and possesses substantial stratigraphic integrity;

It is nearly 120 years old, and except for the built-up areas, or those altered by trail-building, is essentially untouched.


For anyone who’s interested, here’s a 10-point summary of the story of Laurel Heights and UCSF, drawn from the judgment (on )

A Project Mired in Controversy [This subhead is actually from the judgment. Sounds familiar already?]

1. UCSF bought a building in Laurel Heights in 1985, planning to relocate its School of Pharmacy biomedical research unit there. It then started the CEQA process.

2. The move proved to be intensely controversial, because neighbors felt that research involving toxic chemicals, carcinogens, and radioactives was too high-risk for a residential neighborhood. [At least there are no radioactives under discussion at Mt Sutro. Chemicals and carcinogens, yes.]

3. After the meetings, UCSF proposed mitigation measures, and the Regents certified a final EIR, ‘concluding that the environmental effects had been reduced to a level of insignificance.’

4. The Association challenged the 1986 Final EIR for failing to comply with CEQA. It went to court, lost, and appealed.

5. In 1987, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, because of (a) insufficient description of the project (b) inadequate discussion of feasible alternatives to the project and (c) a lack of significant environmental mitigation.

6. The Supreme Court then granted review. It agreed with (a) and (b), but found it did provide for mitigation. Because of the problems with the description and the alternatives, it told the Regents to do another EIR, and not to expand or change the Laurel Heights operation until then.

7. In October 1989, UCSF published a new draft EIR. It got a huge amount of comments. The Laurel Heights Improvement Association itself submitted letters with over 50 pages of comments on 150 different topics with 5000 pages of exhibits. [And we thought our website was getting detailed!]

8. In April 1990, the final EIR was published in six volumes, over 2,000 pages. UCSF didn’t circulate it for comment, though it included major changes – and the Association asked it to do so. Instead, the Regents certified the EIR.

9. Laurel Heights challenged it in court. They lost. They appealed. The Court of Appeals agreed that the new EIR was significantly different and needed to be circulated.

10. UCSF appealed to the State Supreme Court. They lost.

Among the comments in the judgment:

‘We have repeatedly recognized that the EIR is the “heart of CEQA.”’

‘With certain limited exceptions, a public agency must prepare an EIR whenever substantial evidence supports a fair argument that a proposed project “may have a significant effect on the environment.”’

“There must be good faith, reasoned analysis in response [to the comments received]. Conclusory statements unsupported by factual information will not suffice.”

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1 Response to Laurel Heights vs UCSF: Environmental Review Problems. Replay?

  1. Richard Peterson says:

    Let’s be rational here. Living in Noe Valley, I don’t want to lose the wind break. Already developers are cutting down the Monterey Pines and creating a downwind windthrow effect. (That’s when increased wind resulting from removed trees affects down wind trees in a negative manner, such as pitching them over) (This is without considering the banana belt of the east side that benefits from the moisture removal by the existing cloud forest.

    The name of the game is a carbon sequester balance here. Borrow sequestered carbon from the future, say from fast growing redwood trees that are adaptable to a lot of conditions such as fire and wind. OK, cutting 1600 mature trees? Start the carbon balance, with1600 x the average weight of the cut tree, factor in the biodegradability of the salvage wood and wood chips till burned, then factor that against 1600 spindly replacement saplings that grow rapidly in mass to offset the debt. When the debt is paid, go ahead, cut some more exotic trees. I’m basically a redwood man. But, we must improve the environment in the face of a drought, one that may last 100 years or more. Which leads me to watering those saplings……….

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