BERKELEY — The University of California, Berkeley claimed victory Wednesday and could be able to move forward with plans to build a $125 million sports training center soon — but not before it answers a few more questions about its long-awaited project for the court, a judge ruled late Wednesday.
Judge Barbara Miller was ruling on three consolidated lawsuits to stop the project.
"The university has prevailed on every legal challenge to halt construction of the proposed student-athlete, high-performance center. This is a major victory for our students," said Nathan Brostrom, Vice Chancellor for administration. "Make no mistake, the university will be able to build the athletic center."
In a 129-page ruling that was issued after 6 p.m. Wednesday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller ruled that UC Berkeley's student-athlete center, with certain exceptions, is in compliance with environmental and earthquake zoning laws. UC Berkeley attorney Charles Olson said the university will have to clear up two "very minor technical issues" before the project can move forward.
An attorney for the tree sitters and the California Oak Foundation disputed Cal's claims of victory, calling the project dead because it won't be able to comply with an earthquake zoning law.
The decision came as more than 200 people were gathered on the ground below the oak grove, where six to 12 tree sitters have been living in trees since December 2006 to save 44 trees. Police made at least three arrests Wednesday as tree sitters and their supporters grew increasingly charged.
Wednesday's ruling may bring to a close an 18-month battle.
Shortly after the university unveiled the plans in December 2006, the city of Berkeley, the Panoramic Hill Association and the California Oak Foundation filed lawsuits because of concerns over traffic, safety and the elimination of a grove of trees where the sports training center is to be build. The center would house training facilities, offices, conference rooms and locker rooms for 13 varsity sports, including football.
The lawsuits against Cal were consolidated and a trial was held last October. Court delays, requests for additional written documents and further testimony has held up Miller's decision. The administrative record on the case was more than 40,000 pages.
One of the most serious issues was whether the plan complied with the Alquist-Priolo earthquake fault zoning act of 1972.
The law prohibits alterations or additions to existing structures to be built on earthquake faults where the cost of the "alteration or addition'' exceeds 50 percent of the value of the existing structure.
University officials have said they do not know the value of the 85-year-old bowl, with its cramped quarters, crumbling wooden seats and outdated sports facilities.
Miller ruled that the sports training center is a separate structure but that it will alter the California Memorial Stadium. However, Miller said, "certain elements" of the training center project do constitute alterations to the football stadium.
Miller said to "fully comply with Alquist-Priolo the university must determine the stadium's value and the cost of the alterations that fall within the scope of Alquist-Priolo." University officials late Wednesday said the value of the stadium is approximately $593 million.
But Stephan Volker, attorney for the California Oak Foundation, which includes tree activists, claimed a victory Wednesday, saying the sports training project will never be built. "We believe the project is dead because it cannot possibly comply with Alquist-Priolo,'' he said.
"In my judgement, we have evidence in this record that the value of (California Memorial Stadium) is at or near zero, and we also have evidence in this record that the cost of the seismic reconstruction of the stadium is well in excess of $200 million, and therefore I conclude it is not possible for the university to reconstruct the existing stadium and comply with the Alquist-Priolo Act."
The ruling was issued following one of the most contentious — and strangest — days at the oak grove since the tree sitters began living in the oaks Dec. 2, 2006. Over the course of the day, arborists in a cherry picker tried unsuccessfully to remove a tree sitter, known only as Dumpster Muffin.
She was inside a wooden box-like structure that was attached to a long wooden pole atop a tree. At times she ranted and raved, swore, jumped and opened the sides of the wooden box, flapping them wildly in the wind. The cherry picker hanging from a crane was suspended nearby. After a while, arborists gave up the effort to bring her down.
There were so many people on the ground watching the woman and awaiting the decision that the city of Berkeley blocked off a portion of northbound Gayley Road to vehicle traffic because of the throngs of people, said city spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.
UC police had arrested at least three people, said university spokesman Dan Mogulof. Stephen Fiorenza, 23, was arrested on suspicion of vandalism when he cut a plastic tie that keeps the metal barricades at the grove together, Mogulof said.
Matthew Gillam-Lewis, 22, was arrested on suspicion of attempted robbery and violation of a court order when he tried to grab a tool from an arborist, Mogulof said. Police arrested another woman, but her name and the details of the arrest were not immediately available. None of the arrestees is a UC Berkeley student.
In preparation for Miller's decision, arborists hired by UC Berkeley on Tuesday climbed into the oaks and cut down ropes and traversed lines and removed buckets of human excrement that had been stockpiled by the tree sitters. Throughout the day, tree sitters tossed buckets of human waste to the ground, hitting at least one arborist.
They also pulled down a woman — who was first identified as Millipede but later identified as Marisa Schneidman, a 19-year-old non-student. She was arrested on suspicion of assault, battery, resisting arrest, providing false information, trespassing and refusing to leave after she bit the arm of an arborist, Mogulof said.
Construction at the grove has been held up by a preliminary injunction that was issued Jan. 29, 2007.
The university cannot remove the trees until it answers the judge's questions later this month. The tree sitters will likely remain in place.
Staff writers Jonathan Okanes and Angela Woodall contributed to this report. Wire services also contributed to this report. Kristin Bender covers Berkeley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.