Following nearly two years of debate, a pair of local environmental groups are suing UC Santa Cruz over the approval of Student Housing West.

The two complaints, filed April 24 and 25 by local conservation groups Habitat and Watershed Caretakers (HAWC) and the East Meadow Action Committee (EMAC), allege UCSC violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Similar to the National Environmental Policy Act, CEQA requires state agencies to investigate the potential environmental impacts of building projects before breaking ground. 

Group members argue portions of the student housing project were hastily conceived, and that the university ruled out less environmentally impactful project locations to cut costs. 

“This decision overturned 55 years of campus planning principles,” said James Clifford, EMAC representative and UCSC emeriti. “The way the university has proceeded violates every principle of good planning and responsible stewardship of the environment.”

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason called the legal challenges “frustrating,” and said the project has already been subject to thorough environmental study. 

“This move will only hurt our students by resulting in unnecessary delays and increasing project costs, forestalling what we all agree we need: more housing,” Hernandez-Jason said in an email.

Approved by the UC Board of Regents April  1, Student Housing West will add over 3,000 new beds to the UCSC campus, split across two separate properties. The Heller Drive site, located on the current site of Family Student Housing, will contain about 2,920 undergraduate beds, while the Hagar site, on the northeast corner of Hagar and Coolidge drives, will contain an additional 140 units, and replace existing family housing facilities.

Project opponents are targeting the smaller of the two sites. Spanning 17 acres, the Hagar Drive development covers much of the UCSC East Meadow — the iconic grassland gateway that sprawls downfield from the East Remote Lot. 

Gail Hershatter, EMAC member and professor of history at UCSC, considers the proposed use of the East Meadow a waste. She said, while additional student housing is a necessity, developing the Hagar site to minimize the project’s cost is a shortsighted move. 

“It’s so important for the campus to approach this project with intelligent, careful planning,” Hershatter said, “and to not, at the last minute, slap a prefab, low-rise, sprawling development on a piece of prime real estate.”

As initially proposed, the two components of Student Housing West were only to occupy the Heller site. The decision to develop the Hagar site came after an October 2017 environmental study found that areas around the Heller site blocked the movement channels of the California red-legged frog, a federally vulnerable species. 

As a result, the buildable area around Heller shrank from 50 to 13 acres. After exploring various location options — including denser development of the Heller site — UCSC selected the dual Heller-Hagar development scheme in March 2018 with the release of a draft environmental impact report. 

“The idea that during that time, the university carefully looked at all the possible alternatives, simply is refuted by the timeline,” said EMAC representative James Clifford.

Representatives from HAWC could not be reached for comment at time of press.