Frequently Used CEQA Streamlining Provisions

Frequently Used CEQA Streamlining Provisions image
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The path toward CEQA compliance can appear overgrown with pending legislation, delayed schedules, and other challenges. The development of CEQA streamlining provisions provide a more  tactical path toward project approval. While options vary with specific development considerations, several provisional approaches have been used with growing frequency.

Developers seeking project approval in California know they may have a lengthy, challenging process ahead of them. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was developed to prevent or minimize environmental risks and to facilitate public review before making informed decisions from aSB 35n environmental perspective.

While necessary, the CEQA process can cause approval backlogs and delay time-critical development projects. State legislators have recognized the need for crucial projects to undergo a more expedient approval process while still adhering to all CEQA regulations. In that stead, there are various categories of CEQA streamlining provisions that may be beneficial for certain projects.

What are CEQA Streamlining Provisions?

To streamline the construction of housing projects and other critical infrastructure in California, the state legislature has created multiple CEQA statutory exemptions. Additionally, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and the Natural Resources Agency have streamlined regulations for certain classes of projects – such as small housing developments and infill housing – that typically do not have substantial impacts on the environment.

In each streamlining opportunity, the goal is to balance the need for housing and other development with the obligation to consider and account for environmental impacts. Below are descriptions of each of these provisional categories and for what projects they may be applicable.

SB 35

Senate Bill 35 was signed into law in 2017 to expedite the process for housing development approval in localities that have not yet met their housing targets. Eligible projects must be on an infill site and comply with existing residential and mixed-use zoning regulations. The development also must contain a certain percentage of affordable housing units – at least 10% – for lower-income families. Tribal consultation may be required before utilizing this streamlining option.

Categorical Exemptions

Projects that may fall under a categorical exemption (CE) are determined to have minimal environmental impact and therefore are exempt from CEQA documentation. These exemptions cover various categories including small structures, housing acquisition for housing assistance programs, and residential infill development projects.

Statutory Exemptions

A statutory exemption (SE) applies to any given project that falls under its designation, regardless of its potential environmental impacts. In these instances, governing agencies have determined that the benefits of the project outweigh the benefits of CEQA compliance. For example, an exemption was created for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games facility development because of the immense local revenue. These exemptions may also apply in cases of emergency projects where urgency is required to reduce threats to health and property.

Infill Exemptions

Infill exemptions apply to projects that promote infill development in urban areas to capitalize on the potential environmental benefits of redeveloping existing urban sites. Separate from the CE infill exemption, this exemption covers infill projects near a high-volume roadway or significant source of air pollution with mitigation measures or including a renewable energy feature. While the CE exemption typically covers residential infill projects, this exemption has much broader applicability. Specific allowances exist for infill housing in unincorporated counties, urbanized areas near transit, and transit priority projects.

Streamlined Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs)

CEQA allows for a streamlined environmental review process relating to certain projects that may have significant environmental effects but have undergone extensive review at the local level or are consistent with an existing specific plan. This exemption is built upon a prior applicable EIR and must incorporate feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, or criteria from the prior EIR. The streamlined EIR exemption is applicable for mixed-use, residential, or commercial projects.

Master Environmental Impact Reports (MEIRs)

Related to the above EIR exemption, MEIRs can be prepared for large, phased projects where the combined environmental impacts can be analyzed at the project’s onset. Then, the project’s subsequent phases can incorporate the findings of the original EIR, resulting in a streamlined process for each additional phase. The MEIR is intended to be the foundation for analyzing the environmental effects of these follow-up projects.

Expedited Judicial Review

An expedited CEQA judicial review may be an option for certain project categories, including some affordable housing developments, to help efficiently resolve legal challenges. Recently, this exemption has been used in energy, transportation, water, and semiconductor projects deemed exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act. Once exempt, these projects are given priority in lawsuit review and civil actions.

Establishing the Right Streamlining Approach for Your Project

Determining an applicable CEQA developmental streamlining provision requires a careful assessment of the various factors specific to your project. A thorough understanding of applicable laws and regulations, exemption options, and regulatory agencies is critical to cultivating a successful CEQA approach.

Environmental consultants can assess a project’s potential environmental effects and help determine the necessary level of CEQA review. Firms like FCS have extensive experience and industry knowledge to help navigate CEQA compliance and identify opportunities to apply streamlining exemptions.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS)an ADEC Innovation, has more than 40 years of experience navigating the complexities of CEQA and is an industry-leader in CEQA Streamlining. To read more about expediting development projects with CEQA Streamlining, download our white paper. 

About the author

Mary Bean

Mary Bean thumbnail

Mary is FCS's Environmental Services Senior Vice President and has more than 24 years of experience managing the preparation of CEQA and NEPA documents in both the public and private sectors.
She is knowledgeable about a broad range of environmental topics, backed by her experience in the field, research, technical writing, and planning. She specializes in leading interdisciplinary teams in the preparation of technical studies that support environmental clearance at the local, State, and national levels. Her depth of experience allows her to be particularly effective in strategizing with clients about the most efficient approach to environmental review. In her 7 years with FCS, Mary has successfully led FCS’s services on more than 450 projects.

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