CEQA stands for California Environmental Quality Act. The state law was enacted in 1970 for protection of environmental resources.
The basic purposes of CEQA are to:
- Inform governmental decision-makers and the public about the potential, significant environmental effects of proposed activities
- Identify the ways that environmental damage can be avoided or significantly reduced.
- Prevent significant, avoidable damage to the environment by requiring changes in projects through the use of alternatives or mitigation measures when the governmental agency finds the changes to be feasible
- Disclose to the public the reasons why a governmental agency approved the project in the manner the agency chose if significant environmental effects are involved
- Encourage early coordination among agencies in reviewing projects
- Provide better opportunity for public participation
CEQA only applies to projects that require discretionary approval by a government agency. A discretionary approval requires the use of judgment on the part of the approver. For example, if you want to change the zoning on your property to subdivide the land for a housing development, a discretionary action would need to be taken by the Board of Supervisors. This simply means that the Board of Supervisors has a choice to either approve or disapprove your request.
- CEQA does not apply to ministerial (non-discretionary) projects. A project requiring only ministerial approval simply involves a comparison of a project with specific standards or checklists and checking for compliance. For example, a county building department might check your house plans against electric and plumbing standards to make sure that the plan complies with adopted safety and sanitary regulations. This type of approval is not considered a "project" requiring CEQA review. Generally, the issuance of a building permit or business license consistent with zoning and other land use regulations is a ministerial action.
What is considered a project?
A project is a proposal (or any part of a proposal) requiring discretionary approval, which may result in physical changes to the environment. The CEQA Guidelines provide a clear definition of a project (Link to definition of a project). Some examples of projects are applications to change adopted plans (i.e. general plan and community plan amendments), road widening projects, use permit requests, and subdivisions of property. The term "project" refers to the activity that causes the environmental damage.
Public projects are initiated by a state or local agency. Road construction, levee repairs, and sewage treatment plant expansions are examples of public projects. A private project is initiated by an individual, company, landowner, developer, or other entity that needs public agency approval before completing a project. Subdivisions, rezones, and use permits are examples of private projects.
CEQA provides a list of projects that are considered exempt from environmental review. Emergency repairs, school closings, studies, water hookups in existing neighborhoods, and remodels in existing buildings are examples of actions generally not subject to CEQA review.
CEQA permits certain types of projects that are not expected to damage the environment to be exempt from environmental review requirements. Some examples of exempt classes of projects, known as Categorical Exemptions, are:
- repair, remodel, or minor additions to existing facilities;
- construction of a single-family residence;
- gardening, landscaping, or minor grading for a driveway or sidewalk; and
- the creation of four or fewer parcels from one piece of land when public services are available and no variances or exceptions are required.
There are other exemptions under CEQA known as Statutory Exemptions. These are projects exempt from CEQA as determined by the State Legislature. Some exemptions are complete exemptions from CEQA. Other exemptions apply only to part of the requirements of CEQA, and still others apply to the timing of compliance. General Rule Exemptions are sometimes applied to proposals that are clearly not expected to harm the environment, but do not fit into any of the specified exemptions categories of CEQA. Even if a project is listed as an exempt class, it will be subject to environmental review if the agency determines that special circumstances exist that could result in environmental damage. For example, a small parcel split that may otherwise be a candidate for an Exemption happens to be in the floodplain, contains special habitat, has a historic building, or other special characteristics that would trigger the need for environmental review. A project proposed on such a parcel is not likely to qualify for an exemption.
All public agencies are required to adopt specific criteria, objectives and procedures for implementing CEQA. Procedures must include a list of Exemption types that are most frequently used by the agency. The agency must also explain how it makes environmental determinations, processes different types of documents, interacts with other agencies, maintains files, and other activities. Some jurisdictions adopt the state prepared CEQA guidelines as their CEQA procedures. Sacramento County has drafted and adopted its own CEQA Procedures for Preparation and Processing Environmental Documents. You may download a PDF copy of our procedures by
clicking here. Printed copies are also available at the public counter in the County's Division of Environmental Review and Assessment (DERA).
No. However, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a federal law, requires that federal agencies take their own steps to assess potential environmental damage and eliminate impacts, if possible. Sometimes, federal, state and local agencies join together and process CEQA and NEPA documents. This approach generally saves time and money, or at a minimum, makes sure that agencies are aware of each other's actions, analyses and concerns.
An example of a project that might need permits from both a federal agency (triggering NEPA review) and a local agency (requiring CEQA review) is a Use Permit request that includes a proposal to fill federally protected wetlands. In this situation, two courses of action could be followed. The two agencies could prepare a joint environmental document, or each agency could prepare separate reviews. CEQA encourages the preparation of joint NEPA/CEQA reviews. It is often to the applicant's advantage to encourage or agree to joint reviews.
The State Clearinghouse is an environmental review distribution center for state agencies. The State Office of Planning and Research handles this function. Clearinghouse staff distributes copies of environmental documents to state agencies so that they can provide comments and advice to the agency processing the environmental review. Sometimes, the state agency has responsibility for natural resources protection, such as minerals, air or water, which may be affected by a project. In order to safeguard resources, that agency may wish to comment on a project and suggest alternatives or protective measures (mitigations) which will reduce or eliminate environmental damage. Sometimes a state agency is tracking a certain type of project or simply has a special expertise that may prove useful to the processing agency. If a project appears to need review, or is of statewide or regional significance, it is sent to the Clearinghouse. Whenever this occurs, public review deadlines are extended to allow sufficient time for agency review. State agencies return their comments to the State Clearinghouse who then forwards them to the processing agency.
Sometimes more than one agency has the responsibility for approving portions of a project. For example, Sacramento County might approve a subdivision for a housing project. Later, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) may need to approve annexation to the sanitation district so that the houses can be connected to sewer lines. Both approvals may require environmental review. When the applicant or agency knows in advance that additional approvals are required, it is possible to combine the environmental reviews into a single document. In the example given above, Sacramento County is termed the "Lead Agency" for the proposed subdivision because it had the principle responsibility for approving or carrying out the project. The Local Agency Formation Commission is termed the " Responsible Agency", which refers to any public agency that approves portions of a project proposal for which a Lead Agency has prepared an environmental review. CEQA encourages all agencies with approving authority over any part of a project to work together so environmental reviews take the least time possible to prepare. In the best cases, the Lead Agency will be able to:
- determine which agencies could qualify as Responsible Agencies;
- contact them during the environmental review process; and
- address their concerns and issues in the Lead Agency's documentation.
If this process is effective, the Responsible Agency can use the Lead Agency's document. In other words, no new document will need to be prepared.
Sometimes more than one document may need to be prepared. Some of the reasons for this are:
- the applicant is not yet able to provide construction details, therefore, the various agencies cannot review all parts of a project when the first environmental review occurs;
- advances in science and technology, or the availability of new information, make the initial document inadequate for additional use;
- some Responsible Agencies are unable, or unwilling, to participate in the initial environmental review process;
- the Lead Agency could not identify all Responsible Agencies; or
- the applicant had made major changes to the original proposal.
It is in the applicant's best interest to meet with the Lead Agency to find out which agencies may be Responsible Agencies for a project, and to encourage use of CEQA's Lead/Responsible Agency time and resource saving strategy.
An Initial Study is a preliminary analysis of a project intended to:
- serve as an informational document to be used by the public and by decision makers when making choices about projects;
- determine whether a project has the potential to cause significant environmental impacts;
- decide whether an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is required;
- ensure that all potential areas of environmental damage are identified;
- identify possible appropriate mitigation measures; and
- assist in the preparation of EIRs by identifying the environmental damages upon which an EIR should focus.
An Initial Study is used to make a determination if potentially significant impacts would occur and if so to identify mitigation measures to reduce impacts to less than significant levels. In Sacramento County, an Initial Study consists of a written report (generally 10-30 pages in length) that addresses such issues as land use, access/circulation, traffic generation, drainage, air quality, noise, biological resources, impacts to trees, cultural resources, provision of public services, etc. An Initial Study Checklist is part of the report and provides a summary of potential environmental impacts in each area analyzed.
The term " significant adverse impact" means substantial damage to the physical environment. Harmful changes to land, water, air, plants, wildlife, mineral resources, noise levels, and cultural resources are examples of physical impacts which are to be avoided whenever possible. Projects that substantially pollute water supply, use prime farmland for nonagricultural purposes, cause substantial flooding, erosion, or siltation, or affect rare and endangered species generally result in significant adverse impacts upon the environment. In some cases, generally accepted or adopted thresholds of significance are used. If thresholds are exceeded, a determination of significant impact is made.
Independent judgment and local circumstances also come into play in deciding whether a project may have the potential to cause substantial environmental harm. During the evaluation process, damage will be assessed and quantified so that scientifically based findings of significant impact can be accurately reported. Sometimes, significant impacts are identified which can be eliminated or significantly reduced using various strategies called mitigation measures (see below).
A mitigation measure is a requirement that is placed on a project to reduce or eliminate environmental damage that will be caused by building the project. For example, if a development causes the removal of native oaks trees, there may be a requirement to redesign the project to save more trees as well as a requirement to replace those trees that could not be saved. Another example of a mitigation measure is to build a sound wall between a housing project and a noisy street to reduce traffic noise impacts.
A mitigation monitoring and reporting program (MMRP) is required by state law to insure that mitigation measures imposed on a project are actually carried-out as intended. It is essentially the insurance policy that damage to the environment will indeed be lessened or prevented. The MMRP outlines specific steps to be taken by the project proponent to implement each measure and staff are assigned to check that each step is done correctly and completely. In Sacramento County, the project proponent pays a fee to cover the cost of administering the MMRP. When all the mitigation measures have been implemented, a program completion certificate is issued. The length of time it takes to complete the process varies with the complexity of the measures and is mainly driven by how quickly the project proponent chooses to move ahead.
The term Negative Declaration is sometimes misunderstood. A Negative Declaration is simply a statement that a project will not create significant environmental harm, or that environmental damage has been mitigated to a less than significant level. A Negative Declaration (ND) is issued after an Initial Study has been prepared. It is a "positive" outcome for the project. If a project is approved with the use of a Negative Declaration, a Notice of Determination will be filed at the County Clerk's Office stating that your project will not have a significant effect on the environment.
When an Initial Study indicates that a project has the potential to "significantly" damage the environment, CEQA requires that an EIR be prepared. An EIR is an informational document to be used by the public and by decision makers when making choices about projects. CEQA does not require technical perfection in an EIR, but rather adequacy, completeness, and a good faith effort at full disclosure. In an EIR, significant environmental damages (also called effects or impacts) are identified; methods (mitigation measures) for reducing or avoiding damage are identified; and project alternatives are developed which seek to reduce or avoid environmental damage. The EIR process has many steps or procedures. Some of them, in order of occurrence, are:
- Distribution of a Notice of Preparation of an EIR (NOP) which describes the proposal and some of its anticipated impacts, requests comments on what issues the EIR should address, and begins a 30-day public response period;
- Research and analysis including review of comments received during the NOP review period;
- Preparation and issuance of a Draft EIR which discloses expected environmental damage, mitigations and alternatives;
- Submission of the DEIR and Notice of Completion to the State Clearinghouse (if required);
- A 30-45 day public review period during which written comments are received;
- A public hearing on the DEIR in which public testimony is received;
- Preparation and certification of a Final EIR which incorporates responses received during the public review period (if any);
- Filing of a Notice of Determination (NOD) at the County Clerk's office if the project is approved.
Prior to actual preparation of an EIR, the applicant is notified by certified mail that an Initial Study has been conducted identifying potentially significant impacts that led to the determination that the project will require the preparation of an EIR. After receiving the letter, you may discuss the issue with the County Environmental Coordinator or accept the determination and proceed. If you're not satisfied with the decision of the Environmental Coordinator, you may appeal the environmental determination. An appeal must be filed with the Board of Supervisors within 10 days of receipt of the determination notice. A public hearing will be held to address your concerns. Any applicant may appeal decisions to prepare any of the types of documents (Exemptions, Negative Declarations, and EIRs) issued under CEQA.
Anyone may comment on the adequacy of the environmental document. To challenge the Negative Declaration, one must present substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before the County, that the project will have a significant impact on the environment. County staff will respond to the comments and make the comments and responses available to the decision making body for their consideration. Sometimes, when the evidence is compelling enough, a new environmental analysis is conducted. That analysis may result in finding significant impacts requiring the preparation of an EIR or a revised Negative Declaration with added mitigation measures may suffice.
An EIR was prepared for a project in my neighborhood. Environmental damage is expected to be substantial and can't be reduced or eliminated. Doesn't CEQA stop a public agency from approving projects that harm the environment? Aren't they required to mitigate environmental damages? When the state legislature passed CEQA, it was aware that some environmental damage would be caused by growth related activities. CEQA was designed to make sure that decision makers and the public knew how much, if any, environmental damage would be caused by a particular project or group of projects. The legislature made it clear that they expected agencies to reduce or eliminate environmental harm whenever possible. An agency is permitted to approve projects that cause significant environmental damage. However, the agency must make findings that clearly explain the circumstances surrounding the project analysis and the approval. Then, the agency must explain their decision to approve the project, despite expected environmental damage, by adopting a Statement of Overriding Considerations. This type of statement points out the reasons why the decision makers felt a project's benefits outweigh its environmental costs. Decision makers may find impacts "acceptable" based on specific economic, legal, technological reasons or other benefits of a proposed project.
CEQA does contain some processing time requirements. For example, for private projects, an agency has 30 days to check an application and let you know if additional information is required (this process is commonly referred to as "884 review"). This requirement can be extended 15 days with the applicant's consent. A Negative Declaration for "certain private projects" should be completed within 180 days from the date the application was deemed complete (CEQA Guidelines §15107); EIRs should be completed in one year. Time limits may be extended under certain circumstances, such as a delay by the applicant, joint NEPA/CEQA document preparation, or the need for special processing actions, such as preparation of a complex technical drainage analysis, which cannot be completed within the specified time limits. In the latter case, an application may be considered incomplete for processing purposes until major informational components can be obtained. As for the actual DERA review process, the specific amount of staff hours and time frame are difficult to peg because each project is unique and may be affected by different circumstances. A typical Initial Study/Negative Declaration for a simple project, such as an 8-lot subdivision map, may take only about 20 hours of total staff time because there are only three or four minor issues to investigate. A more complex project may require significant research, computer modeling, tree or wetland preservation plan analysis, have long public review periods or possess other characteristics which increase both staff hours and length of processing time. In either case, it is important to keep in mind that the actual processing time frame may span several weeks or even months. About 8 to 10 weeks is typical for a Negative Declaration. A typical EIR may take up to a year to complete. These time frames are in keeping with the legal time limits of CEQA noted above.
Once DERA is finished with the environmental review, a private project moves on the Planning Division where the staff report to the hearing body/bodies is prepared. The environmental document only presents the results of an objective review based on facts. The staff report is the document that contains extensive staff analysis on the merits of the project and the recommendation as to whether a project should be approved or denied. The recommendation is based in part on the findings of the environmental review, but also takes into account other considerations such as recommendation from the local community planning advisory council, land use compatibility and consistency with established land use policies. The actual decision to approve or deny a project rests with one or more of the following hearing bodies: Board of Supervisors, County Planning Commissions, Subdivision Review Committee, or Zoning Administrator. In limited cases, such as grading permits, the Public Works Administrator (or designee) has approval authority. For public projects, the initiating departments (Public Works, Airports, Parks, etc.) make recommendations and the Board of Supervisors is the approving body.
Public hearings are not specifically required under CEQA. Sacramento County has adopted procedures that require a public hearing for Draft EIRs to provide an opportunity for oral comment by interested parties. During those hearings, County hearing bodies accept testimony on the environmental document, as well as the project itself.
The heart of CEQA is public disclosure. Public review is considered one of the most important parts of the CEQA process. Public notice and review are CEQA requirements. The County is required to mail notices to the last known name and address of all organizations and individuals who have previously requested such notice in writing. In addition, notice is published in a newspaper of general circulation and posted with the County Clerk Recorder's office. For private projects, the County also provides notice of public hearing, which specifies the environmental document type. Another way to stay informed of upcoming projects is through your local Community Planning and Advisory Councils (CPAC webpage). Anyone can and is encouraged to comment upon the adequacy of environmental documents. For projects with the potential to cause serious environmental damage, an agency is required to respond in writing to public concerns. The public review period for Negative Declarations is 20-30 days depending upon the project. The review period for an EIR ranges from 30-45 days again depending upon project characteristics. For example, if an EIR requires review by state agencies, the review period will be at least 45 days. Public notices specify due dates for comments for each project.
Sacramento County bills applicants for actual processing costs as permitted under CEQA. Staff time, publishing and consultant fees, printing and overhead expenses, and other related costs are charged to process Negative Declarations and EIRs. A small flat rate is charged for processing of Exemptions. The billing process is different depending upon the type of document that is prepared. For private projects, the fee for an Exemption is generally collected as a DERA deposit when the application is filed with the Planning Department. The fees for Negative Declarations are normally billed after an environmental review is completed and must be paid prior to the project's public hearing. Because EIRs can be expensive, the County estimates EIR preparation fees before processing occurs. This estimated fee amount is conveyed to the applicant in the same certified letter determining the need for an EIR. These estimated fees must be paid before the Environmental Coordinator will issue a Notice of Preparation and begin processing the EIR. After the EIR process is completed, a project cost accounting will be done and the applicant will either receive a bill for payment due or a refund depending on actual project cost.
I already paid all of my application processing fees. Now, I find out that more money is due for Fish and Game fees. Why are the Fish and Game fees required?
A State law took effect on January 1, 1991 that requires public agencies to collect fees for the State Department of Fish and Game (DFG) under certain conditions. DFG fees are collected whenever a project is found to not be de minimis. The term " de minimis" in this context means that the project will not harm state fish and wildlife resources. In Sacramento County, projects are sent to the State Clearinghouse for distribution to the DFG whenever there is cause to believe that a project may not be de minimis. Whenever a project is reviewed by DFG, the applicant is assessed a set fee by the State. The fee for Negative Declarations is $ 2,070. The fee for EIRs is $2,865.25. Out of those fee amounts, $26 is intended to cover County Clerk-Recorder administrative costs (DERA receives no part of the DFG fee). The rest is forwarded to the Department of Fish and Game. Under state law, no project is deemed vested or approved until a Notice of Determination is filed at the County Clerk's office that states whether a project is expected to impact wildlife resources. If a project is not de minimis, the County Clerk will not accept a Notice of Determination for filing unless Fish and Game fees are paid.
Yes, pre-application meetings are available as a means of facilitating the application process for prospective applicants. Pre-application meetings are intended to provide upfront assistance to private project applicants in a coordinated forum attended by Planning, DERA, and Public Works representatives. The intent of the pre-application meeting is to identify, not solve, issues and to advise potential applicants of application requirements, what agencies/departments to talk to, answer applicant's questions, and to advise applicant of feasibility and pitfalls. These meetings are voluntary but highly encouraged, especially for major development projects, such as General Plan Amendments, and large Community Plan Amendments and Rezones. This is a good opportunity for you to get an indication of the feasibility of your proposal. To schedule a pre-application meeting contact the County of Sacramento, Community Planning and Development Department, 827-7th Street, Room 225, Sacramento, CA 95814 at email@example.com.