California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

October 16, 2023 by Anastasiia Ponomarova in California  Special Report  
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California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

Approved in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies to all public agencies at the state, regional, or local level. CEQA mandates that both public and private projects requiring discretionary approval from a governmental agency, as well as activities undertaken or financed in whole or in part by a governmental agency must comply with its requirements.

The California Environmental Quality Act aims to achieve several objectives. Firstly, it seeks to inform the public about the significant environmental impacts of a proposed discretionary project by preparing an initial study, negative declaration, and mitigated negative declaration, or environmental impact report.

Secondly, it aims to prevent or minimize environmental damage by developing project alternatives, mitigation measures, and mitigation monitoring.

Thirdly, it aims to disclose to the public the agency decision-making process used to approve discretionary projects through findings and statements of overriding consideration.

Fourthly, it seeks to enhance public participation in the environmental review through scoping meetings, public notice, public review, hearings, and the judicial process.

Finally, it aims to improve interagency coordination through early consultations, scoping meetings, notices of preparation, and State Clearinghouse review.

The CEQA process mandates both procedural and substantive requirements for the environmental review. In the event that a proposed action is classified as a "project" under CEQA, an Initial Study (IS), must be conducted at a minimum to assess the project and its environmental impacts. The lead agency, responsible for conducting the action or permitting the discretionary action, oversees the review.

Depending on the potential effects, a more comprehensive review may be necessary in the form of a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) or an Environmental Impact Report. If feasible alternatives or mitigation measures are available to reduce the projects environmental impacts significantly, the project cannot be approved in its current form.

Categorical Exemption

Some actions are exempt from the environmental review process under CEQA because they are not considered “projects” and have been determined to have no significant effect on the environment. Here are some commonly used exemptions:

  • Class 1: Existing facilities (Guidelines §15301)
  • Class 2: Replacement or rebuilding of existing structures and facilities (Guidelines §15302)
  • Class 3: Construction of small structures (Guidelines §15303)
  • Class 7: Actions taken by regulatory agencies to maintain, restore, or enhance a natural resource (Guidelines §15307)
  • Class 8: Actions taken by regulatory agencies to maintain, restore, enhance, or protect the environment through procedures for environmental protection (Guidelines §15308)

Initial study

When a project can potentially harm the environment, staff will conduct an Initial Study. Based on the study’s results, staff will come to one of two conclusions:

Option 1: If there are no significant impacts or if identified impacts can be reduced to a less than substantial level through a mitigation plan, the project is eligible for a Negative Declaration or a Mitigated Negative Declaration (ND or MND).

Option 2: If the Initial Study identifies significant impacts that cannot be reduced to a less than significant level, the City must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The EIR will consider potential impacts, mitigations, and alternatives to the project that would have lesser impacts or no substantial impacts on the environment.

Public Access to CEQA Documents

The recent enactment of Assembly Bill (AB) 819 on July 16, 2021, mandates the electronic dissemination of specific CEQA notices. According to this legislation, the City is required to post a notice on its website, as well as with the County Clerk of the Board and the State OPR/ Office of Planning and Research, following the final approval of a development project that has undergone a CEQA determination.

In the case of a project that has been deemed exempt from CEQA, the City must file a Notice of Exemption (NOE). Conversely, for a project that necessitates an ND, MND, or EIR, the City must file a Notice of Determination (NOD).

The California Environmental Quality Act has been subject to criticism since its implementation, with concerns raised about its impact on the state’s economic growth. Some have expressed particular concern about the potential for the CEQA process to hinder the development of much-needed housing in California. It has been noted that opponents of new housing projects, often residents in the vicinity, have used the CEQA process to delay or prevent such developments. In response, the Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Leadership Act was introduced in 2011 to streamline the CEQA review process for certain projects, including housing development.

This Act has been extended until 2024 by Governor Gavin Newsom.

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