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Planning & Building

James A. Bergman

Director

CEQA Frequently Asked Questions

These responses to the most frequently asked questions about the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Environmental Review Process have been prepared by the Environmental staff of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building. We hope that these questions and answers help you understand the environmental review process and how it affects your project and the community.

WHAT IS CEQA?

CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act (pronounced SEEQUA). Passed into law in 1970, CEQA sets statewide policies that require both state and local agencies to consider the environmental consequences of decisions that involve changes to the environment. The purposes of CEQA are to:

  1. Provide information about the environmental effects of projects.
  2. Identify ways that environmental damage can be avoided or reduced.
  3. Prevent significant environmental damage through mitigation measures or alternatives.
  4. Disclose the reasons why a project was approved despite significant environmental impacts.

WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW?

Environmental review is the evaluation process that CEQA requires public agencies to conduct before taking action to approve a project. Environmental review is a set of procedures used to identify a project's potential impacts, develop ways to reduce those impacts, and report the results of the analysis to the public.

HOW DO I KNOW IF CEQA APPLIES TO MY PROJECT?

CEQA applies to projects that require discretionary approval by a government agency. A discretionary approval requires the use of judgement or subjective criteria on the part of the approver. For example, if you wanted to have your property rezoned so that you could subdivide for housing, a discretionary action would need to be taken by the Board of Supervisors. This simply means that the Board of Supervisors could approve or disapprove your request. Your proposal would be considered a project and would need initial CEQA review.

CEQA does not apply to non-discretionary (ministerial) projects. A ministerial approval simply involves a comparison of a project with specific standards or checklists. For example, the County building department will check your house plans against electric and plumbing standards to make sure that the plan complied with adopted safety and sanitary regulations. This type of approval is not considered a "project" requiring CEQA review.

WHAT IS CONSIDERED A PROJECT UNDER CEQA?

A project is a discretionary proposal (or any part of a proposal) which might result in physical changes to the environment. Some examples of projects are applications to change adopted plans, road development projects, use permit requests, and subdivisions of property.

WHAT TYPES OF PROPOSALS DON'T REQUIRE CEQA REVIEW?

Some examples of proposals not subject to CEQA review include emergency repairs, school closings, studies, water hook-ups in existing neighborhoods, and remodels in existing buildings.

HOW LONG DOES ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW TAKE?

CEQA contains processing time requirements. For example, an agency has 30 days to check your application and let you know if additional information is required. A Negative Declaration should be completed within six months of an application being accepted as complete; EIRs should be completed in a year. Time limits may be extended under certain circumstances, such as a delay by the applicant.

However, there is not a specific amount of time that can be given because each project is unique. One review might be processed with 6 to 8 hours of staff time because there are only one or two minor issues to investigate. Another project may require significant research, computer modeling, tree or wetland preservation plan analysis; have long public review periods or possess other characteristics which increase processing time.

IS A PUBLIC HEARING REQUIRED?

While public hearings are not specifically required under CEQA, San Luis Obispo County has adopted procedures which require a public hearing for Final EIRs. 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 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 IS AN EXEMPTION?

CEQA permits the exemption, from environmental review requirements, of certain types of projects which are not expected to damage the environment. The State Secretary of Resources reviews candidate classes and lists them as exempt when appropriate. Some examples of class, or Categorical Exemptions, are: (1) repair, remodel or minor additions to existing facilities; (2) construction of a single-family residence; and (3) gardening, landscaping, or minor grading for a driveway or sidewalk. General Rule Exemptions are sometimes applied to proposals which are not expected to harm the environment.

Even if a proposal is listed as exempt, it will be subject to environmental review if the agency determines that special circumstances exist which could result in environmental damage. For example, a parcel might be in the floodplain, have special habitat, a historic building, or other characteristics which would trigger the need for environmental review. A project proposed on that parcel is not likely to qualify for an exemption.

WHAT IS AN INITIAL STUDY?

An Initial Study is a preliminary analysis of a project intended to: (1) provide information; (2) enable an agency to identify methods for changing a project with the intent of eliminating or reducing (mitigating) substantial environmental damage; (3) assist in the preparation of EIRs by identifying the environmental damages upon which an EIR should focus; (4) identify possible appropriate mitigation measures; and (5) ensure that all potential areas of environmental damage are identified.

Initial Study preparers will generally complete an Initial Study Checklist as part of the Initial Study process. The Initial Study Checklist includes categories of physical damage, such as air quality and noise impacts, and provides a preliminary summary of potential for environmental damage in each area.

WHAT IS A NEGATIVE DECLARATION?

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" statement.

WHAT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT (EIR)?

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. 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 adverse environmental effects.

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 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 judgement 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 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 ARE CUMULATIVE IMPACTS?

Cumulative 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 farmland loss.

I DON'T THINK THAT MY PROJECT NEEDS AN EIR. WHAT CAN I DO?

You can discuss the issue with the County's Environmental Coordinator. If you still have concerns, we will schedule a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors to address your concerns. The Board of Supervisors will decide if an EIR is needed for the project to go forward.

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 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 DISCUSSED IN THE CEQA 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 EIR. While not required by CEQA, public costs and revenues of a project may be analyzed concurrently with environmental review.

DOESN'T CEQA STOP PROJECTS THAT HARM THE ENVIRONMENT?

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.

MY PROJECT ALREADY HAD ITS ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW. NOW, ANOTHER AGENCY WANTS TO DO ONE. WHY?

Sometimes, more than one agency has the responsibility for approving portions of a project. For example, San Luis Obispo 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 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.

Sometimes, more than one document may need to be prepared. Some of the reasons for this are:
(1) 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;
(2) advances in science and technology, or the availability of new information, make the initial document inadequate for additional use;
(3) some agencies are unable to participate in the initial environmental review process; or
(4) the applicant has made major changes to the original proposal.

WHY WAS MY PROJECT SENT TO THE STATE CLEARINGHOUSE?

CEQA requires that copies of environmental documents for projects that need permits from state agencies, or that impact resources that are under the jurisdiction of state agencies, be sent to the State Clearinghouse. The State Clearinghouse is an environmental review distribution center for state agencies. It is located in the State Office of Planning and Research. Clearinghouse staff mail copies of environmental documents to state agencies so that they can provide comments and advice to the agency processing the environmental review.

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 which forwards them to the processing agency.

WHY DOES THE COUNTY NEED CEQA GUIDELINES?

All public agencies are required to adopt specific criteria, objectives and procedures for implementing CEQA. These are in addition to the statewide guidelines which are more general and apply to all agencies in the state. Some jurisdictions adopt the state-prepared CEQA guidelines as their CEQA procedures. San Luis Obispo County's guidelines supplement the state guidelines.

WHAT IF I NEED APPROVALS FROM FEDERAL AND LOCAL AGENCIES?

An example of a project which might need permits from federal (NEPA review) and local (CEQA review) agencies is a request which includes a proposal to fill federally protected wetlands. In this type of 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 to the applicant's advantage to encourage this course of action.

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.

If you have other questions about CEQA or the environmental review process, please contact the Environmental Division of the County Department of Planning and Building. Brief questions can be answered over the phone. For more detailed discussions, please call and set up an appointment in advance. The phone number is (805) 781-5600. The office is located in the County Government Center in San Luis Obispo, at the corner of Osos and Palm Streets