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Primer on the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”)

September 11 2013 | Legal,
by Angela Howe

The California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") is California's premier environmental law.  The law ensures that there is protection of the environment and informed self-government.  Projects must be reviewed for their environmental impacts, and CEQA requires public agencies to avoid or mitigate significant environmental impacts whenever feasible.  The law functions by including the public's point of view, through notice and comment opportunities, to inform government decisions. The Planning and Conservation League ("PCL") has done a series of public workshops to inform the public on the purpose, power and process of CEQA.  PCL and presenter Amy Minteer from law firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens LLP have graciously agreed to have their previous Orange County workshop filmed and posted here in this blog.

The California Enviornmental Quality Act was passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by then Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970.  There are also detailed guidance provisions on how to comply with CEQA, known as the "CEQA Guidelines", which are promulgated by the Califonria Resources Agency and updated periodically.  The Guidelines are generally given great weight by the courts and treated as law by the agencies.

CEQA allows for public participation through its requirement of public notice of pending projects.  CEQA also allows for public comment on the investigation of project alternatives, identification of impacts and analysis of mitigation.  Here are some tips for engaging in public comment through the CEQA process:

1) Be as specific as possible. It may not be sufficient to merely mention that water pollution will worsen due to a project, you should say why you think this is the case, where it will happen and to what extent.

2) Comment early and often in the process.  There are usually multiple layers of an administrative review process, sometimes starting with the planning commission and then city council or a public agency hearing.  It is best to offer objections early on when the decision-makers may be more open minded and there is time for the agency to sufficiently address comments.

3) The final decision comment opportunity is most important for potential litigation. To preserve the right to sue comment must be made at the last stage in the administrative process so that the commenter has "exhausted administrative remedies."

4) When commenting, be sure to state the basis for your comments, including your knowledge, qualifications and references. If you have lived in an area for decades or have environmental science training or background, this will be very relevant.  Do not hesitate to give a source for the information you are bringing to the table.

5) Tie your arguments back to relevant facts.  Support your argument with facts and figures, if possible.

6) CEQA takes a broad view of environmental impacts, so feel free to comment on any common sense "environmental" issue.  CEQA issues include biological impacts, traffic, air quality, water quality, public aesthetics and historic impacts.

7) Use the Public Records Act to obtain more information for your comments.  You can use the a records request to a public agency to trave the development of an environmental document through its various iterations, to see correspondence between the developer and agency, and to view other relevant drafts and communications.

Overall, CEQA can be an incredibly powerful tool to protect the environment and engage in the public decision-making process in California.  Surfrider Chapters should be aware of their rights under CEQA and how to use the law to protect our oceans, waves and beaches.  For any questions relating to Surfrider Foundation campaigns and CEQA, feel free to contact the Surfrider Foundation Legal Department via Legal Director Angela Howe (ahowe@surfrider.org).

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