California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
The state legislature enacted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970. CEQA established statewide regulations for the environmental review of discretionary projects as well as a process for mitigating or avoiding potential environmental impacts.
The purpose of CEQA is to:
- Disclose to the public the potentially significant environmental effects of a proposed project;
- Develop alternatives and mitigation measures to prevent or minimize environmental impacts;
- Identify additional opportunities for public participation and community input;
- Improve the findings to support the future approval of discretionary projects.
CEQA applies to discretionary projects that may result in a direct physical change or a foreseeable indirect change to the environment. Most land use proposals are subject to CEQA, including revisions to the General Plan and Community Plans, as well as certain proposed ordinances. All development projects requiring discretionary approvals undergo environmental review.
Stand-alone ministerial and by-right projects are statutorily exempt under CEQA. These projects do not need planning approvals because they comply with zoning and building code requirements.
CEQA Process Overview
- Determine if the proposed project or policy qualifies for a statutory or categorical exemption from CEQA based on State Guidelines. The CEQA Guidelines interpret state statute and published court decisions to better inform the environmental review process and preparation of any associated documents.
Statutory Exemptions (SEs) apply to projects that the California Legislature has determined to be specifically excluded from CEQA consideration.
For example, emergency projects such as emergency repairs to publicly or privately owned service facilities necessary to maintain services essential to the public health, safety or welfare are statutorily exempt from CEQA.
Categorical Exemptions (CEs) apply to projects that are determined to not have a significant environmental impact. CEQA recognizes over 30 types of CEs. They are listed in the CEQA Guidelines that are adopted by the Natural Resources Agency under rulemaking authority and are maintained in the California Code of Regulations at Title 14, Chapter 3.
For example, Class 32 is a Categorical Exemption available for qualifying infill development located in an urban area. To qualify, a project must meet all of the following criteria:
- The Project Site must be 5 acres or less in size;
- The Project must be consistent with the General Plan (i.e. Community Plan) and zoning requirements;
- The Project site has no value as habitat for endangered, rare or threatened species.
- Approval of the Project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.
- The site can adequately be served by all required utilities and public services.
Other commonly used Categorical Exemptions include Class 1 (which may include the minor alteration of an existing facility) and Class 3 (which may include new construction of small structures).
- Unlike statutory exemptions, categorical exemptions must be further reviewed to ensure that a particular project doesn’t trigger an exception that would disqualify a project from being categorically exempt under CEQA.
- These exceptions include factors that address:
- A project’s location in a sensitive environment (not applicable to Class 32);
- Significant cumulative impacts from successive projects in same location of same type;
- Identifiable unusual circumstances;
- Potential impacts to State designated scenic highways
- A project’s location within a hazardous waste site listed under state law, or a
- Project’s significant impact to historical resources
The application of CEQA does not apply to projects over which the City only has ministerial authority. This means that stand-alone by-right or ministerial projects are exempt from CEQA based on the project scope and the planning approvals.
- If the proposed project is not exempt under either a statutory or categorical exemption, an initial study is prepared to assess the project’s potential impacts to the environment. The initial study analysis will determine if a Negative Declaration (ND), a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) or an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) must be prepared for the associated project.
Note: The summary above provides a general overview of the CEQA process and is intended to be used for informational purposes only. The steps enumerated above do not address new streamlining tools for projects located within Transit Priority Areas or involve affordable housing. For more information, consult the California Natural Resources Agency website.