CEQA at a Glance
And why you should care how it works…
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), adopted as state law in 1970, was intended to inform citizens and decision makers about potential significant environmental impacts of projects by requiring a thorough public review of those projects within a framework of environmental concerns (air and water quality, wildlife and habitats, public health, etc.). The CEQA review is meant to identify ways that environmental damage can be avoided or significantly reduced, requiring changes in projects through the use of alternatives or mitigation measures when feasible, and disclosing to the public the reasons why a project was approved if significant environmental effects are involved.
CEQA applies to projects undertaken or funded by a public agency, or requiring the issuance of a permit by a public agency, so pretty much everything from a backyard tool shed to a freeway interchange will be subject to CEQA review. In San Francisco, CEQA review is conducted by the Planning Department; research and preparation of the review material is often handled by other parties, such as project consultants, but the ultimate "finding" (the decision on adequacy and depth of CEQA review) is rendered by Planning. Depending on the legislative context, CEQA findings can be appealed to the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors, and on to courts of law (as in the case of the Bike Plan), on questions of process and adequacy.
Although all projects receive environmental review, Planning staff find many projects exempt from a deeper CEQA review. A project might be exempt from CEQA for "statutory" reasons (the project is specifically exempted by law, "ministerial" reasons (e.g. a permit issued without administrative discretion), "categorical" reasons (e.g. bike lanes as a class, or "changes in traffic and parking regulations where such changes don't establish a higher speed limit or result in more than a negligible increase in the use of the street"), or where it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment (General Rule Exemption). The 2005 Bike Plan Policy Framework received a GRE before the Board of Supervisors and Mayor adopted it in June 2005.
If initial analysis indicates that a project is likely to cause significant environmental impacts, a more thorough analysis is conducted, resulting either in a Negative Declaration (no significant impacts), Mitigated Negative Declaration (significant impacts, but balanced by mitigating remedies), or Environmental Impact Report (EIR). A full CEQA review can be expensive and time-consuming; an EIR can take a year or more and hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and review.
It is important to note that under CEQA the specific impact significance measures and thresholds are left to local jurisdictions to set — environmental concerns (clean air, noise) and thresholds of significance (X parts per million of particulate matter, X decibels of noise) are not legislated under CEQA at the state level but left to San Francisco to determine. If we think that pedestrian safety is an environmentally significant concern, we can add that to the list of significance measures evaluated in our environmental review practice, so long as we establish a meaningful measure and threshold of significance and develop and catalog substantial evidence of the environmental concern. Likewise, if we feel that automobile traffic congestion (currently measured by "auto Level of Service", or LOS) is not an environmental concern, we can remove that significance measure from our "significance checklist" and perhaps substitute another more meaningful measure, such as Vehicle Trip Generation, which will better evaluate anticipated environmental impacts and injuries (various and substantial and quantifiable) resulting from car trips added by a given project.
With 35+ years of precedent, CEQA case law is an overgrown and complex realm that's perplexing to regular citizens but fertile ground for expensive lawyers and consultants.
More and more, the beneficial public review intended by CEQA is an expensive charade which blesses bad projects and obstructs good ones. Projects which are patently damaging to the environment are able to buy their way through the CEQA process to legitimacy, while the environmentally-beneficial Bike Plan gets caught in the gears of an honorable process gone topsy-turvy.
In April the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution brought by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi declaring auto LOS to be an inappropriate measure of a given project's environmental impact, and requesting that the Planning Commission act to replace LOS with a more meaningful measure, such as Auto Trip Generation (ATG). The SF County Transportation Authority has commissioned a study of ATG as a meaningful environmental concern and produce a practical tool that the Planning Commission can bring to their deliberation of CEQA reform in San Francisco.
For more information on CEQA, auto LOS, and environmental review, see our LOS page.
Excerpted in part from the South Coast Air Quality Management District's "Frequently Asked CEQA Questions".