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The California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") is a State statute that requires that public agencies identify the impacts of their actions on the environment and, if possible, avoid or mitigate those impacts.
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The impetus for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can be traced to the passage of the first federal environmental protection statute in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In response to this federal law, the California State Assembly created the Assembly Select Committee on Environmental Quality to study the possibility of supplementing NEPA through state law. This legislative committee, in 1970, issued a report entitled The Environmental Bill of Rights, which called for a California counterpart to NEPA.
Later that same year, acting on the recommendations of the select committee, the legislature passed, and Governor Reagan signed, the CEQA statute. California was the first state to adopt its own “mini-NEPA” to identify and reduce the environmental impacts of new state projects, attempting to expand the factors balanced in decision-making, to add environmental goals to economic and social goals. While CEQA originally only pertained to projects sponsored or approved by state agencies, CEQA was expanded during the 1970s to include all California development proposals – public or private – that are subject to the discretionary approval of a public agency.
CEQA applies to actions by a local agency that are: (1) discretionary; and (2) constitute a “project” as defined by CEQA.
An action is discretionary when it requires the exercise of judgment.1 The action is a project if it may cause a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.2 The term “project” is “given broad interpretation in order to maximize protection of the environment, therefore the general rule is, if it’s not clearly seen that the item it is not a project, then treat it as a project.”3
A public agency must comply with CEQA when it undertakes an activity defined by CEQA as a "project." A project is an activity that may cause either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the environment, and is undertaken by a public agency, or a private activity which must receive some discretionary approval from a public agency (meaning that the agency has the authority to deny the requested permit or approval or impose conditions on approval).
Most proposals for physical development in California are subject to the provisions of CEQA, as are many governmental decisions that do not immediately result in physical development (such as adoption of a general or community plan). Every development project that requires a discretionary governmental approval will require at least some environmental review pursuant to CEQA, unless an exemption applies.
Public agencies are entrusted with compliance with CEQA. A public agency having authority to approve or disapprove a project is designated the CEQA Lead Agency, and is responsible for complying with CEQA for that project.
Compliance with CEQA is usually undertaken in a three-step process. In the first step, the Lead Agency determines if the action being considered is a “project” under CEQA. If the project is deemed to be a project, the Lead Agency then determines if the project is exempt from CEQA. If the project is not exempt from CEQA, the Lead Agency determines whether the project is likely to result in a significant impact on the environment that cannot be mitigated to a less than significant level (often by completing a CEQA checklist). If the answer to that question is yes, the Lead Agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). If it is no, they may prepare an Initial Study/Negative Declaration (IS/ND) or Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration (IS/MND).
CEQA is a self-executing statute. Compliance with CEQA is enforced, as necessary, by the public through litigation or the threat of litigation. While the Natural Resources Agency is charged with the adoption of CEQA Guidelines, it is each public agency's duty to determine what is and is not subject to CEQA. As such, the Natural Resources Agency does not review the facts and exercise of discretion by public agencies in individual situations. In sum, the Agency does not enforce CEQA, nor does it review for compliance with CEQA the many state and local agency actions that are subject to CEQA. CEQA’s implementation falls largely on state and local governments, and special districts.
After it is determined that an activity or action is a “project” under CEQA, the Lead Agency will next consider whether a specific CEQA exemption applies.
In order to determine whether a project qualifies for an exemption, the Lead Agency evaluates whether the project fits into any of the statutory or categorical exemptions listed in Articles 18 and 19 in the State CEQA Guidelines, respectively. If it is plainly clear that the activity has no potential to result in any significant environmental impacts, a “common sense” exemption may apply [State CEQA Guidelines Section 15061(b)(3)].
If a project falls within any of the categorical exemption classes, the Lead Agency must next evaluate whether any exception to the exemptions apply. These exceptions to the exemptions define circumstances that override or negate the agency’s ability to use a categorical exemption. In other words, if an exception applies, then the project no longer qualifies for a categorical exemption. The exceptions are described in Public Resources Code Section 21084(c), (d), and (e) and State CEQA Guidelines Section 15300.2. These exceptions apply (and therefore a categorical exemption does not apply) where:
If any of these exceptions apply to the project or the project site, the agency or governmental unit cannot use a categorical exemption and must instead proceed with environmental review under CEQA.