What is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)?
The California Environmental Quality Act, which became law in 1970, is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. It is one of the most powerful environmental protection laws in the nation and was modeled after the federal National Environmental Policy Act.
Do I need a CEQA attorney?
If you have a project proposal that is subject to environmental review, the short answer is Yes.
California law requires government agencies to assess a proposed project’s environmental impact before committing to a set course of action, such as project approval. Environmental studies under CEQA inform the public and decision-makers about potentially significant environmental impacts of a proposed project and identify ways to prevent or mitigate those impacts.
Navigating the path from application submittal to CEQA compliance to project approval can be very challenging. A sound CEQA compliance strategy based on experience and a thorough understanding of the laws means the difference between project approval and failure.
Our CEQA attorneys guide clients in properly responding to the reviewing agency’s concerns and questions. We analyze CEQA studies, such as Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), Mitigated Negative Declarations (MNDs), and CEQA streamlining documents to ensure that the reviewing agency has accurately studied a project’s environmental effects and mitigation approaches.
How does CEQA work?
CEQA provides a process through which public agencies, the public, and project developers can evaluate a project, understand its environmental impacts, and develop measures to reduce these impacts. CEQA applies to projects that may result in a change in the physical environment; a full environmental review is only required where the project may result in a significant impact to the physical environment.
The public is involved in CEQA at many stages. Public involvement starts during the scoping process, which is used to determine what environmental impacts will be studied. Then, a formal environmental study, such as an EIR or MND or CEQA streamlining document, is prepared. Next, there is a formal public comment period. Finally, there are hearings. CEQA ensures that the permitting agency understands the full impacts of the project and has mandated mitigation where feasible.
Anyone who has objected to a project and believes they will be adversely affected by the failure of an agency or project proponent to comply with CEQA can file a lawsuit challenging the approval of the project. This must be on grounds raised during the administrative, or government, process. Litigation has been used to require increased disclosure about environmental impacts, to require agencies to undertake more in-depth environmental studies, to bolster mitigation measures, and to require that a public agency adopt a statement of overriding considerations explaining why it is approving a project with significant and unavoidable environmental impacts.
Who must comply with CEQA?
Most proposals for physical development in California are subject to the provisions of CEQA, as are many discretionary governmental decisions that will eventually result in physical development (such as adoption of a general or specific plan).
Some projects undertaken by a public agency are subject to CEQA. This includes projects undertaken by any state or local agency, any special district (e.g., a school district), and any public college or university.
CEQA applies to discretionary projects. A discretionary project is one that requires a public agency to determine whether the project will be approved, or if a permit will be issued. Some common discretionary decisions include general plan amendments, rezones, conditional use permits, subdivision maps, and, in some jurisdictions, design review.
Aside from decisions pertaining to a project that will have a direct physical impact on the environment, CEQA also applies to decisions that could lead to indirect impacts, such as making changes to local codes, policies, and general and specific plans.
Who initiates the CEQA environmental review process?
Every development project which requires a discretionary governmental approval will require at least some environmental review pursuant to CEQA, unless an exemption applies.
Where a project requires approvals from more than one public agency, CEQA requires one of these public agencies to serve as the "lead agency." Once the lead agency determines that a project is subject to CEQA and not exempt, an “initial study” is generated to establish whether the proposed project has the potential to have a significant effect on the environment.
What triggers an Environmental Impact Report (EIR)?
When an initial study finds substantial evidence that a project may significantly impact the environment, CEQA requires that an EIR be prepared. The EIR is a detailed report that identifies the potentially significant environmental effects the project is likely to have; identifies feasible alternatives to the proposed project; and indicates the ways in which significant effects on the environment can be mitigated or avoided.
Does every project require CEQA review?
No. CEQA only applies to projects that require discretionary permits from a government agency. The agency must have some discretion that shapes how a project can be conducted for CEQA to apply, and the project must be one that could result in an adverse change to the environment.
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