CEQA: An overview

What is CEQA?

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.

When and why was it enacted?

The impetus for 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.

Who must comply with CEQA?

CEQA applies to certain activities of state and local public agencies. A public agency must comply with CEQA when it undertakes an activity defined by CEQA as a "project." A project is an activity undertaken by a public agency or a private activity which must receive some discretionary approval (meaning that the agency has the authority to deny the requested permit or approval) from a government agency which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the environment.

Most proposals for physical development in California are subject to the provisions of CEQA, as are many governmental decisions which do not immediately result in physical development (such as adoption of a general or community plan). Every development project which requires a discretionary governmental approval will require at least some environmental review pursuant to CEQA, unless an exemption applies.

If it applies, what are the basic requirements of environmental review under CEQA?

The environmental review required imposes both procedural and substantive requirements. At a minimum, an initial review of the project and its environmental effects must be conducted. Depending on the potential effects, a further, and more substantial, review may be conducted in the form of an environmental impact report (EIR). A project may not be approved as submitted if feasible alternatives or mitigation measures are able to substantially lessen the significant environmental effects of the project.

What are the CEQA Guidelines?

The Guidelines are the regulations that explain and interpret the law for both the public agencies required to administer CEQA and for the public generally. They are found in the California Code of Regulations, in Chapter 3 of Title 14. The Guidelines provide objectives, criteria and procedures for the orderly evaluation of projects and the preparation of environmental impact reports, negative declarations, and mitigated negative declarations by public agencies. The fundamental purpose of the Guidelines is to make the CEQA process comprehensible to those who administer it, to those subject to it, and to those for whose benefit it exists. To that end, the Guidelines are more than mere regulations which implement CEQA as they incorporate and interpret both the statutory mandates of CEQA and the principles advanced by judicial decisions.

CEQA has been the center of some significant political debate recently. Developers of the proposed new LA Clippers (NBA) arena in Inglewood apparently went to the legislature asking for special immunity from the CEQA lawsuits that so commonly launch with any new construction plans. 

Is CEQA the problem?

The argument as one observer frames it is that the state is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the suggestion by some is that CEQA is at least partly to blame for it. CEQA is just one of many that touch home development in the state. In this scenario, more rules translate into higher housing costs, so easing some rules might help lower those costs.

A package of bills signed into law in September is meant to address the issue of metro housing costs, but many acknowledge that the changes aren't likely to have much effect. That is spurring calls for broader easing of CEQA rules. Obviously, environmental advocates are reluctant.

The suggestion put forward by one legal analyst is that any change to CEQA should be part of a holistic review of the entire system of rules on land use and development - including examination of planning and zoning policies at each local level.

We don't write this to take a position one way or the other in this debate. That is something to decide in another forum. What is clear, though, is that as laws do change, new legal questions will arise and the struggle to resolve disputes will demand the application of effective negotiation and litigation skills to resolve them.

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