Environmental Review

Who can use this service?

Anyone applying for a permit that requires review under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and/or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can use this service.

Is there a charge for this service?

Please refer to the Department of Planning & Building Fee Schedule for application fees.

What is the process?

Step 1: Submit Application

The applicant submits a completed application and pays all applicable fees.

Step 2: Review by Staff

Staff reviews the application to determine whether:

  1. It is not a project;
  2. It is a project and is exempt from CEQA; or
  3. It is a project and it is not exempt from CEQA; however, there is no possibility that it may cause any significant environmental impacts.

If one of the above determinations is made by staff, a notice of exemption is prepared for the project.

Step 3: Conduct Initial Study (Situational)

If none of the determinations in Step 2 can be made by staff, an initial study (or in some cases, an expanded initial study) is conducted by staff pursuant to CEQA guidelines. If the initial study finds that there is no substantial evidence that the project (or a revised project, as agreed to by the applicant) will not cause any significant environmental impacts, then a negative declaration (or in some cases, a mitigated negative declaration) is prepared. If the initial study finds that any aspect of the project, either individually or cumulatively, may cause a significant environmental impact, an environmental impact report is prepared.

Step 4: Prepare Document

Based on the results of Step 3, staff (or in some cases, a qualified consultant under contract with the County) prepare either a negative declaration (or in some cases, a mitigated negative declaration) or an environmental impact report.

Step 6: Review and Comment

The public is given the opportunity to review any comment on draft environmental determinations. The time period allocated for review and comment is based on the type of determination, typically ranging from 30-90 calendar days.

Step 7: Adopt Determination

The hearing body considers the environmental determination at the same time as project approval. If the hearing body agrees with the environmental determination, it may be adopted concurrently with any project approval.

When and where is this service offered?

This service is available throughout the year during regular business hours except during scheduled holidays.

Location, directions and hours of operation

Click on location name to show hours of operation, directions and phone information

Old County Courthouse Building

Monday - Friday 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM

976 Osos Street Room 200 San Luis Obispo, CA 93408

Tel: (805) 781-5600

Permits/Inspections: (805) 788-2076

Fax: (805) 781-1242

Frequently Asked Questions

Does environmental review stop projects that harm the environment?

Not necessarily. An agency is permitted to approve projects which cause significant environmental damage. However, the agency must make findings which 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 a project's benefits outweigh its environmental costs.

Does the federal government have to comply with CEQA?

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 it, if possible. Sometimes, federal, state and local agencies join together and process CEQA and NEPA documents together. This approach generally saves time and money, or at a minimum, makes sure that agencies are aware of each other's actions and analyses.

Is a public hearing required for environmental review?

While public hearings are not specifically required under CEQA, the County has adopted procedures which require a public hearing for final environmental impact reports. In addition, County hearing bodies accept testimony on the environmental review, as well as the project itself, when project hearings take place. Public notice and review are CEQA requirements. The public review period for negative declarations is 20 to 30 days depending upon the project. The review period for an environmental impact report (EIR) ranges from 30 to 90 days, again, depending upon project characteristics. Public review is considered one of the most important parts of the CEQA process. Anyone can and is encouraged to comment upon the adequacy of environmental reviews.

What "environment" is being reviewed?

When it comes to the environmental review process, the "environment" includes the physical conditions that could be changed by a project, including land, air, water, minerals, plants, animals, noise, and objects of historical or visual significance. The "environment" includes both natural and man-made conditions.

What are cumulative environmental impacts?

Cumulative environmental impacts represent the sum of many smaller impacts from many different project proposals. For example, a project site might be located in an area which has poor drainage. An agency may know that every time it approves a construction project site, runoff will increase downstream flood potential to some degree. The project's impacts become significant when added to those caused by many others in the project area. Examples of cumulative impacts include air and water pollution, traffic problems, and loss of farmland.

What is a mitigation measure?

A mitigation measure is a strategy taken to reduce or eliminate a project's expected environmental damage (e.g. "No heritage oak trees may be removed"). Sometimes, mitigation measures are designed to repair, restore or rehabilitate a damaged area (e.g. "All illegal fill will be removed from the floodplain and natural vegetation restored"). Others may provide compensation for losses by providing substitute resources or environments (e.g. "Trees will be planted off-site to replace those removed during construction").

What is a mitigation monitoring plan?

To make sure that mitigation plans are effective, CEQA requires that agencies verify completion of mitigation measures. Agencies prepare and adopt mitigation monitoring plans which ensure that agency staff checks to make sure that mitigation measures are done correctly. When all mitigation requirements have been completed, and it can be assured that the mitigation will be successful, the mitigation monitoring plan will also be concluded.

What is a significant impact?

The term "significant impact" means substantial adverse damage to the physical environment. An initial study is prepared to assess a project's potential for causing environmental damage. The initial study will use the state's CEQA implementation guidelines which contain a list of the types of projects which generally cause environmental damage. Examples of projects on the state's list are any which: substantially pollute water supply; use prime farmland for non-agricultural purposes; or cause substantial flooding, erosion or siltation.

The CEQA analysis relies upon independent judgment to decide whether a project may have the potential to cause substantial environmental harm. The CEQA process also evaluates local circumstances not considered by the state when developing its impact list. Sometimes, significant impacts are identified which can be eliminated or significantly reduced using various strategies. In these cases, impact reduction strategies (mitigation measures) will be recommended rather than stating that expected damage is potentially significant.

If significant impacts are expected, an environmental impact report (EIR) will be required. During that process, damage will be assessed and quantified so that scientifically based findings of significant impact can be accurately reported.

What is an exemption?

Certain types of projects are exempt from environmental review. Examples of exempt project include minor additions to existing buildings, construction of a single-family residence, and minor grading for a driveway or sidewalk. Sometimes projects that would otherwise be exempt are subject to environmental review due to special circumstances. Examples of such circumstances include projects that are located within a floodplain, contain special habitat, or involve historic structures.

What is a negative declaration?

The term negative declaration is sometimes misunderstood. A negative declaration is a document which states that a project will not cause any significant environmental impacts. A mitigated negative declaration is a document which states that any significant environmental impacts that may otherwise have been caused by a project have been reduced to less than significant levels by identification of and adherence to mitigation measures.

What is an environmental impact report?

An environmental impacts report (EIR) is a document that informs the public and decision-makers of any significant environmental impacts that may be caused by the project. Mitigation measures are identified to reduce any potential significant environmental impacts to a less than significant level and project alternatives are developed to further reduce or avoid any potential significant environmental impacts. In cases where potential significant environmental impacts cannot be reduced to less than significant levels, the hearing body tasked with making a decision on the project may choose to adopt a statement of overriding considerations, meaning that the net benefit of the project is greater than the net negatives caused by any significant environmental impacts.

What if I disagree with an environmental determination?

Anyone who disagrees with an environmental determination can appeal that determination.

What is the difference between public and private projects?

Public projects are initiated by a state or local agency. A private project is initiated by an individual, company, landowner, developer, or other entity which needs public agency approval before completing a project. Public and private projects are treated the same way by CEQA.

Why aren't economic issues address in environmental review?

Discussion of project-related social or economic damage is not required by CEQA. Social and economic issues are discussed when they will cause physical damage. For example, if a roadway project will ruin access to a business area, and the resultant loss of taxes would reduce an agency's ability to maintain environmental protection, economic impacts would be discussed in an environmental impact report. While not required by CEQA, public costs and revenues of a project may be analyzed concurrently with environmental review.

Why does another agency want to do additional environmental review on my project?

Sometimes, more than one agency has the responsibility for approving portions of the same project. For example, the County might approve a subdivision for a housing project. Later, the Coastal Commission may need to approve a coastal permit for the project. Both approvals are projects which 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.

CEQA encourages all agencies with approving authority over any part of a project to work together so that environmental reviews take the least amount of time possible to prepare. In the best cases, the County will be able to address the concerns and issues of other agencies in our environmental document.

In some instances, more than one document may need to be prepared. Some reasons for this are:

  • The applicant is not yet able to provide construction details; therefore, the various agencies can't review all parts of the 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 agencies are unable to participate in the initial environmental review process; or
  • The applicant has made major changes to the original proposal.