Court Ruling on UC Berkeley Gym Fails to Dislodge Tree-sitters

BERKELEY, California, June 19, 2008 (ENS) – Both sides are claiming victory in a lawsuit over construction of a gymnasium complex next to UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium that has had tree-sitters occupying a grove of oaks on the site for the past 18 months. The activists have been living in the Memorial Oak Grove to protect it from destruction while awaiting a court decision.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that further environmental review is required before the University of California-Berkeley can build the gym, so the trees will remain standing – for now.

Judge Barbara Miller decided that three features of the planned gym violate the Alquist-Priolo Act governing construction on or near earthquake faults. The current stadium, which is adjacent to the oak grove, stands on the Hayward earthquake fault. She rejected the university’s argument that the law does not apply to it.

One of the tree-sitters in the Memorial
Oak Grove at UC Berkeley
(Photo courtesy IndyBay)

The judge also ruled that the approval of the gym by the University of California Regents did not adequately consider earthquake risks and noise and traffic from special events planned at the university.

One of the attorneys suing the university, Stephan Volker, called the judge’s ruling as a victory for his clients, the Panoramic Hill Association.

But Judge Miller upheld most of the university’s arguments, and UC Berkeley officials said Wednesday night that the campus has prevailed on virtually every challenge in legal action that sought to halt construction of the planned Student-Athlete High Performance Center.

“We are thrilled that the judge concluded that state seismic law will allow the Student-Athlete High Performance Center to be built on the site” adjacent to California Memorial Stadium, said Vice Chancellor for Administration Nathan Brostrom. “This is a major victory for our students.”

But a year and a half of direct action and coordinated support of protection for the Memorial Oak Grove nearly ended in tragedy Tuesday when about 40 University of California police officers, and a crew of privately contracted arborists with cranes began to cut cables and remove tree-sitters’ gear and structures just below Memorial Stadium in anticipation of a court ruling favorable to the university.

Oak supporters implored the arborists through bullhorns to not engage in the reckless and life-threatening removal of the tree-sitters.

Reporter Richard Brenneman of the “Berkeley Daily Planet” saw one of the cranes brush a support line, from which a treesitter was suspended between two evergreens at least 50 feet apart.

The suspended treesitter “screamed in terror,” Brenneman wrote, when the arborists placed a saw next to the line on which she was suspended.

The suspended treesitter, known as Millipede, was brought down and arrested several hours later,

“As they maneuvered a large basket crane into position, the extractors banged into her several times. Her screams could be heard all over the grove as more than a hundred supporters watched below,” wrote the “Berkeley Citizen.” She was “wrestled onto the platform” and lowered to the ground.

This incident took place although Mitch Celaya, UC Berkeley’s assistant police chief, had said no one would be forcibly taken from the trees.

Tree-sit supporter confronts UC police.
(Photo courtesy IndyBay)

“While we will not be forcibly removing any of the protesters, we are moving to bring this illegal occupation of university property to a safe but certain end,” said Celaya. “We expect that today’s action and future steps will make it far more difficult to sustain the protest. It is unfortunate that we have been forced to take this action, but the protesters leave us no choice.”

“Crews also revved up chainsaws at least five times on Wednesday, sending large branches crashing to the ground, “absolutely in violation of the court’s injunction,” said attorneys for the protesters.

Some of the trees in the Grove were planted in 1923 as part of a World War I Veterans Memorial. The tree-sitters remain aloft as both sides analyze the court’s ruling.

A preliminary injunction granted by Judge Miller in February 2007 remains in place. It constrains the university from making any physical alterations on the project site – including cutting of the oak trees.

Karen Pickett of Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, a nonprofit group that supports the tree-sitters, said, “This ruling sends the university back to the drawing board on their project, or into appeals, but unable to proceed forward immediately, which is clearly what they intended to do.”

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