Will you need an Environmental Review? The answer is simple and not so simple. The basic answer is that the State of California requires that all projects presented for approval through a public hearing process undergo environmental assessment.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA pronounced See-Qua) is the primary law that the city is going to look at during environmental reviews. The goal of CEQA is to bring to light potential negative environmental impacts. Environmental reviews allow the city to go farther and modify your project to mitigate negative environmental impacts or to identify better options.
Environmental Reviews: Do You Need a Discretionary Review?
When your city or county receives your application for a new development, the first thing they decide in this process is whether or not it requires discretionary review for your permits and entitlements.
If your project does require discretionary review, the governing agency is required by law to make an initial environmental assessment within 30 days. “What is involved in environmental reviews?” you ask. In short, they are going to decide whether the law requires an environmental review, or… if you are lucky… that you are exempt. If your project is exempt, you will not have to deal with environmental reviews.
If the City/County Decides an Environmental Review is Necessary: The Discretionary Review
If environmental reviews are necessary, and your application is accepted as complete, the city or county has 30 days to prepare an Initial Study. The Initial Study is a broad assessment of potential environmental impacts that your projects may cause. This initial study will determine which path you go down.
The best thing that could happen, at this point, is that you will receive a Negative Declaration. Sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it?
However, this Negative Declaration is a standardized evaluation and notice which states that your project either will not have any substantial environmental impacts, or will be developed in a way that mitigates any potential impacts. If you don’t receive a Negative Declaration, you will be traveling down the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) route.
Just because your project doesn’t get a Negative Declaration and requires an EIR, does not mean your project has substantial environmental impacts.
CEQA heavily favors, and legally protects, applicants that file EIRs. Because of this, politically controversial projects will generally have an EIR in order to protect the project from lawsuits after it is approved.
Maybe your project is more politically controversial than you think. Give us a call and we can explain why you did not get a Negative Declaration.
Environmental Reviews: The Timing
Now you are going through the Environmental Review (EIR) process. Your city or county must file a Notice of Preparation to responsible and trustee agencies within the same 30 day period as the Initial Study. Once the Notice of Preparation is sent, the notified agencies have 30 days to respond with comments to your city or county.
Within 45 days of receiving these comments about your project, the contract for the EIR must be executed if a consultant will be preparing the document. Within the next couple months, your city or county or a consultant should complete the Draft EIR, and post a Public Notice that the Draft EIR is available for public review.
The Draft EIR is then circulated for public review. This means that it will be available to the public at the city or county offices, or at a local public library for 30 to 45 days. Additionally, the Draft EIR may be submitted to the State Clearinghouse for review, which requires the 45-day review period.
After this public review of the Draft EIR your city or county receives and reviews all comments received by the public and other interested parties. Your city or county or a consultant will prepare your Final EIR. The Final EIR includes responses by the city or county to the comments received on the Draft EIR. At least ten days before your city or county certifies the Final EIR, they must send responses to all commenting agencies. The entire process from accepting an application as complete to certifying the Final EIR must occur within one year.
Once the Final EIR is certified, your city or county has six months to render a decision on your project and adopt a mitigation report or a monitoring plan. Within five days of approving a project with a Final EIR, your city or county must file a Notice of Determination and submit the filing fee with the California Department of Fish and Game. If there are additional agencies that must approve the project (responsible agencies), they have six months to make a decision on the project after your city or county makes a decision on your project.
The Negative Declaration Process
If you have received a Negative Declaration, you are going down that other environmental review path mentioned before.
Although a Negative Declaration means you will not have to go through the EIR process, this isn’t a cake walk either. It, like the EIR, has specific time constraints and shop lingo that you need to be aware of.
A Negative Declaration will generally be referred to as a Neg Dec. After the Initial Study is complete, the lead agency must elect to prepare a Neg Dec within the same 30 day timeframe as the Initial Study. Then your city or county has 45 days to hire a consultant to prepare the Neg Dec, if they decide not to do it in-house.
Upon review of the project, your city or county, or a consultant, determines any measures that could be put into your project to mitigate potential environmental impacts. You must approve these mitigation measures.
The next step in the process is to prepare a Draft Negative Declaration. Once complete, a Public Notice must be posted. The Draft Neg Dec is circulated for public review, usually at the city or county offices or a local public library. The public review period for this review is 20 to 30 days, depending on whether the document is submitted to the State Clearinghouse.
After the public review periods closes, the lead agency considers any comments received regarding your Neg Dec, and can decide if any of those comments should be addressed.
Within 180 days of accepting an application as complete the lead agency must adopt the Negative Declaration. The lead agency must then make a decision on your project within two months of adopting the Neg Dec, and adopt any mitigation or monitoring plans. Within five days of approving your project with a Neg Dec, the city or county must file a Notice of Determination and submit the filing fee with the California Department of Fish and Game. Other responsible agencies have three months to make a decision on the project after the city or county has made a decision.
Environmental reviews are complex, time-consuming and worrisome. Can your project be exempted from environmental reviews? How can you mitigate the outcome? Call us for a project review. We can help you figure out the best approach.