One of the many changes to local planning ushered in during social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s was the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA. Enacted in 1970, CEQA was patterned after a federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. When CEQA was first adopted, it appeared to be written to apply only to public initiated projects. However, in the 1972 Friends of Mammoth case, the California Supreme Court ruled that approval of discretionary, privately initiated projects was as much a governmental action as extending public services into agricultural areas or constructing a water line.
CEQA, although not a planning law, affects land using planning at nearly the same level as the general plan and zoning ordinances. However, unlike the multi-dimensional aspects of the general plan and zoning ordinances, CEQA has only one goal – protecting the environment.
CEQA contains several broad objectives:
- To disclose to the public and decision makers the potential environmental effects of proposed actions;
- To identify ways to avoid or reduce environmental damages;
- To foster interagency coordination in the review of projects;
- To enhance public knowledge and participation in planning and decision making;
- To prevent environmental damages, to the extent feasible, by exploring less damaging project alternatives or strategies to reduce or eliminate adverse project related impacts.
- To explain publicly why an agency needs to approve a project that significantly and negatively impacts the environment.
One of the basic steps the city must perform to comply with CEQA is an Initial Study to identify the environmental impacts of the project and determine whether the identified impacts are “significant”. Based on its findings of “significance”, the city prepares one of the following environmental review documents.
A Negative Declaration briefly describes the reasons that a proposed project would not have a significant effect on the environment and therefore does not require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report or EIR.
A Mitigated Negative Declaration is a type of negative declaration prepared when a project’s Initial Study identifies potentially significant environmental impacts but also identifies mitigation measures that would reduce the impacts to a less-than-significant level. These mitigating measures can be anything from replacing destroyed trees to providing a car pool lane. These mitigation measures generally form the basis for the conditions of approval that city staff and the Planning Commission may require for a particular project.
If the development of a project is believed to result in potentially significant environmental impacts, CEQA requires the preparation of an EIR. The EIR addresses impacts to: aesthetics, agriculture resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, geology/soils, hazards & hazardous materials, hydrology/water quality, land use/planning, mineral resources, noise, population/housing, public services, recreation, transportation/traffic, utilities/service systems, and addresses mandatory findings of significance. Each of these areas is analyzed and mitigation measures are incorporated where necessary to mitigate environmental impacts. The developer of the project pays for the EIR. This could be either the applicant or City depending on who is proposing the project. A third party consultant typically does the preparation of the EIR. A full-blown EIR can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to address.
There are many who feel that since its enactment in 1970 and application to the private sector in 1972, the environmental review process has become progressively more complicated and costly, primarily through expansive court decisions. They have a number of common complaints including; the process is cumbersome and unpredictable, mainly for larger projects that require an EIR; mitigation measures required as a condition of project approval are not always effective or reasonable in light of a project’s environmental impacts; processes to challenge decisions made under CEQA and to resolve disputes are costly and time-consuming and are sometimes used to create unnecessary project delays.
Some reforms of CEQA have been suggested. These changes, which seek to reduce the twin curses of uncertainty (and doubt) of outcome and interminable delay, include: Certify an EIR within a specified amount of time; if local government does not reach a determination by that time, the EIR should be deemed certified. Urban infill should be exempt from CEQA requirements. Legislation is needed to limit mitigation requirements to those measures that are proportional to the project’s actual environmental impacts. Add to CEQA a provision that would require a public agency, in deciding whether or not to prepare an EIR or negative declaration, to briefly evaluate the impact of that decision on jobs and competitiveness, and to balance environmental issues and processing decisions with job concerns.
The purpose of an EIR is to clearly identify the environmental impacts of a proposed development, the actions that could be taken to lessen those impacts and the impacts that will remain significant even after possible mitigation. The process should not be used to stop growth but to ensure that environmental impacts are understood by all and if necessary they are mitigated.