David Magney Environmental Consulting

CEQA and NEPA Impact Assessments

CEQA Impact Assessments

Land use development within California requires, in many cases, an assessment and evaluation of project-related impacts to the environment, pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).   CEQA is the state law that is used by local and state agencies to evaluate discretionary projects (projects that a government body has discretion to permit or deny) as to their impacts on the human and natural environment.   Ministerial projects are exempt from CEQA, which often includes minor, routine types of land use activities, such as small amounts of grading, building structures, repairing propertly, etc.   Lot splits, Conditional Use Permits, zoning changes, and subdivisions are types of land use projects that typically are considered discretionary, and require CEQA review.   All discretionary projects must be consistent with the jurisdiction's General Plan, the land use guiding document in California.   It is under CEQA that Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) and Mitigated Negative Declarations (MNDs) are prepared.   Each land use jurisdiction (Lead Agency), typically a county or city, but also special districts such as a water or sewer districts, that has the authority to permit or deny a project, must comply with CEQA on all discretionary projects within their juridiction.

After determining whether a project is discretionary, an Initial Study Checklist is completed by the Lead Agency to determine which issue areas would be significantly impacts as a result of the proposed project, based on a detailed Project Description, which is typically prepared by the project applicant.   Issue areas include: aesthetics, air quality, traffic, biology, health and safety, land use, emergency services, geology, cultural resources, utilities, and several other specific areas.   The Initial Study is also used to determine which type of document must be prepared, an EIR, MND, or just a Negative Declaration.   If an EIR or MND is required, then specific studies, according to each issue area, will be required to be completed as part of the environmental analysis, which will result in determinations of any significant impacts and how they can be mitigated.   This can be quite complex and expensive, with the applicant paying all the costs associated with the CEQA review.   Careful project planning is required, and plenty of time alloted to the environmental review process before any permits can be obtained.   The presence of any threatened or endangered species on the project site may result in a Mandatory Finding of Significance during the Initial Study phase, which would require the preparation of an EIR.   It is not uncommon for an EIR to cost the applicant at least $100,000.   Preparation of the Initial Study and a MND is typically much less expensive; however, in some cases, not much less expensive, but the time frame and public review process is usually significanly shorter than for an EIR.   The typical time from submittal of a permit application to the certification of an EIR is 1 year.   Timing and good preplanning is essential to minimize the CEQA review process.

NEPA Impact Assessments

Many discretionary projects requiring permits from a Federal government agency must undergo environmental review and assessment pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).   NEPA is very similar to, and predates, CEQA, but has some terminology differences and slightly different requirements.   There are basically two types of documents prepared pursuant to NEPA, the Environmental Impact Study (EIS), comparable to the EIR under CEQA, and the Environmental Assessment (EA), equivalent to CEQA's MND.   If you need a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, etc., those agencies must comply with NEPA.   Some projects in California will require compliance with both CEQA and NEPA.   Typically, if both laws are triggered, they are prepared separately and the CEQA document is used to prepare the NEPA document by the permitting federal agency.   In most such cases, if an EIR is required under CEQA, an EA will only be required by the federal agency.   Big and complex projects will likely require both an EIR and EIS.

Any significant impacts resulting from the proposed project must be fully mitigated.   Significant impacts can often be avoided, and every effort, through careful project design, should be taken to avoid or minimize project-related impacts to the environment, to save money if nothing else.   Sometimes avoidance is just not possible or feasible, and still have a viable project, and significant impacts will result.   If the significant impacts cannot be fully mitigated for some reason, then an EIR or EIS must be prepared, and the unmitigable impacts can only occur if the Lead Agency, under CEQA, make Findings of Overriding Consideration, formally acknowledging the impacts to the environment but approving the project regardless.   Making such findings may be politially challenging for the decisionmakers, who are usually elected officals under CEQA or federal bureaucrates under NEPA.

The primary differences between CEQA and NEPA are: 1). CEQA follows a rigid schedule and NEPA does not; 2) NEPA requires full and equal consideration and evaluation of project alternatives, and CEQA only minimally so; 3) CEQA required full mitigation for all significant impacts when feasible, NEPA does not.   There are a number of other differences, particularily in terminology, but those are less important.

DMEC has prepared numerous environmental review documents, or parts of them, for a wide variety of projects.   DMEC staff have received specific training in CEQA and NEPA.   DMEC routinely prepares the Initial Study Checklist for biological resources for the Ventura County Planning Division, since 1997.   DMEC has prepared two EIRs, one for the Newhall County Water District for a water main extension (look at the bottom of the page for links to the EIR), and one for the Lyons Canyon Ranch housing development in Los Angeles County.   DMEC has also review numerous CEQA and NEPA documents for various clients, and DMEC staff have prepared CEQA and NEPA documents while working for other employers.   Depending on the jurisdiction, either the Lead Agency hires and controls the preparation of the CEQA preparer or the applicant can hire the CEQA consultant, but the Lead Agency controls the process.   In either case, the environmental document prepared is considered the Lead Agency's document.

This page last updated 28 March 2011
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