California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
State law requires that an environmental assessment be undertaken for projects that have the potential to have an impact on the environment. All development projects have such potential impacts, and so all projects must be assessed under CEQA. Most land use policies may affect the environment and are also subject to review under CEQA. There are three levels of CEQA review:
Many types of smaller development projects or projects that can be seen with certainty to have no significant detrimental impact on the environment are generally exempt from CEQA. For example, an addition to a single family home or the construction of a new home are generally exempt from CEQA review. While many smaller projects are exempt, it should be recognized that certain circumstances may trigger a higher level of CEQA review, such as even a small addition adjacent to a creek or a single family home in a highly unstable geological location.
Initial Study. When staff concludes that a project has the potential to have some detrimental impacts on the environment, staff will conduct an “Initial Study”. Upon completion of the Initial Study, staff can come to one of two conclusions:
- Negative Declaration. Under the specific circumstances of the particular case, there are no potentially significant impacts; or any identified potentially significant impacts can be mitigated to a less-than-significant level through the adoption of mitigations. Under these circumstances, the project is eligible for a “Negative Declaration” (also referred to as a Neg Dec). If there are no significant impacts, then no mitigations will be required. Should impacts be identified, then mitigations must be adopted as part of the project and included as conditions of the project and those impacts must be mitigated to a “less than significant” level.
- Environmental Impact Report. If the Initial Study identifies one or more significant impacts on the environment, and those impacts cannot be mitigated to a less than significant level, then the City must prepare and Environmental Impact Report (EIR). An EIR will consider potential impacts and mitigations, and also alternatives to the project that would not cause those significant impacts or would have lesser impacts than the proposed project.
Once the appropriate environmental determination and the Negative Declaration or EIR is prepared, the City will proceed to act on the development project. The City cannot act on a development project until the CEQA assessment is completed and adopted. Please note the following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) about CEQA:
Q: Can a project that will have a significant impact on the environment be approved?
A: Yes. Once an EIR is prepared and adopted, the reviewing body (ZAB or City Council) may approve the project if it makes certain findings of over-riding consideration as to the need for the project.
Q: What is a “significant impact”?
A: There is no set definition of “significant impact”. The State has guidelines and cities may adopt guidelines for determining significance, but in many instances, significance is a professional judgment by a relevant expert that is then affirmed by the governmental agency that certifies the environmental document. Similarly, whether a mitigation reduces an impact to a “less than significant” level is equally a professional judgment by the reviewing parties. Over the years, many court cases have refined the meaning of significance, but there is no hard and fast rule on this issue for many types of impacts.
It is important to recognize that while a project may have a very significant impact on a neighbor, the impact may not be significant under CEQA. CEQA is intended to assess significant adverse impacts on “the environment,” with “the environment” considered broadly. While a project may cause shadowing on a neighbor, block neighbors’ views, cause some increased traffic or require trees to be cut down, these are often not considered significant environmental effects under CEQA. However, even if the City concludes that a project will not have a significant adverse environmental impact under CEQA, the City may find “detriment” under the City’s zoning ordinance and regulate the project accordingly.