Using CEQA to Protect the Places You Care About
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Conservancy
What Is the California Environmental Quality Act?
The California Environmental Quality Act, or “CEQA” (pronounced “SEEquah”), as passed in 1970. CEQA declares it state policy to “develop and maintain a high-quality environment now and in the future, and to take all action necessary to protect, rehabilitate, and enhance the environmental quality of the state. “It helps safeguard the natural environment as well as historic places that you and other members of the community consider too important to tear down. CEQA is the primary legal tool used in California to protect historic sites threatened with demolition.
At its simplest, CEQA requires a report to the public (called an “EIR” or “environmental impact report”) describing how a proposed development project would affect the quality of life of communities, including our basic rights to clean air, toxic-free buildings, ease of traffic, and cultural heritage. It requires our government agencies to avoid or minimize those impacts to the extent feasible by examining alternative approaches to the project. The specific ways of reducing these impacts are developed through a public participation process in which the views of neighborhood residents must be taken into account.
Would new buildings result in more cars on the streets, increased congestion, and air pollution? Would the project tear down a historically significant building? CEQA gives you and your neighbors the right to have your voices heard when decisions about a proposed project are being made. CEQA does have limitations, however, and it does not guarantee that a historic building will be saved.
Losses That Might Have Been Prevented if CEQA Had Been in Place
With the postwar construction of freeways that crisscross Sacramento,
entire neighborhoods in Sacramento’s West End, Midtown and elsewhere were paved over, divided, and destroyed. In the 1960s, before the passage of
CEQA, the construction of the Highway 50-Highway 99 Interchange isolated neighborhoods like Oak Park and East Sacramento, displaced thousands of people, and demolished thousands of homes. At the time, community members protested, wrote letters to their councilmember, attended meetings, formed committees, and demonstrated in the streets. Despite their pleas, the project went forward. It is now the busiest freeway interchange in the United States.
How CEQA Works
CEQA requires that project impacts on historical resources be recognized and considered by the city, county, state, or other governmental agency (the“
lead agency”) responsible for approving a project that could destroy or otherwise adversely affect these resources. In some cases, the lead agency determines that the project will not have negative environmental impacts or that its impacts can be avoided by requiring the developer to meet certain conditions, or “mitigation measures.” If the project poses significant environmental impacts that cannot easily be avoided, an environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared.
The EIR is considered the heart of CEQA, providing the public and decision makers with an in-depth review of a project’s environmental impacts and feasible alternatives that would reduce those impacts. The EIR process is the best opportunity for members of the public to promote alternatives to demolition. If an EIR studies a feasible alternative to demolition, the lead agency may be required to change the project to reduce its impact on historical resources.
What Is a Historical Resource?
In order to take full advantage of legal protections under CEQA, it is essential to first establish the significance of the building being threatened. To automatically qualify as a “historical resource “under CEQA, and trigger the requirement for an EIR, any building targeted for demolition must be:
(1) listed or determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historical Resources; or (2) listed in a city register of historic landmarks. However, a resource does not have to be officially designated in order to trigger the requirement for an EIR under CEQA.
This is where your role is so important. If a building threatened with demolition is not already listed in a historic register, members of the public must convince local officials that it qualifies as historic and is worthy of protection. Community activists need to research the site; share your stories; and submit documentation, photos, and expert testimony early in the environmental review process to show why the building is significant and meets local or state requirements for historic status.
Document the history of the building
Is the building a significant gathering place for the community? Does it have artistic, cultural, or architectural value? Did an important event happen there? Talk to your neighbors and document their memories; gather old photos and newspaper clippings that tell the story of the site. Find out the criteria for listing a resource in a local or state historic register, and point out reasons why the building appears to meet one or more criteria. For tips on more in-depth research, contact Preservation Sacramento.
Prepare a landmark nomination.
In cities with a historic preservation ordinance, buildings that have been listed as city landmarks automatically trigger review under CEQA and other protections under local law. These processes give the public an opportunity to propose alternatives to the project. For more information about how to nominate a building for landmark designation, contact Preservation Sacramento.
The CEQA Process
Step 1: The Scoping Process
Before an EIR is released, the lead agency must first determine which environmental impacts and alternatives to the project should be studied. The process of deciding what topics should be evaluated in the EIR is called “scoping.” The lead agency issues a Notice of Preparation of an EIR, which is a document that describes the project and invites public input.
In addition to posting notices at the project site, the lead agency is required to mail copies to organizations and individuals who have requested notice in writing. Notices must also be published in the local newspaper and posted at the County Recorder’s office. A thirty-day review period is required to allow members of the public to respond to the Notice of Preparation. Sometimes the lead agency will also hold a public scoping meeting.
At this stage in the process, it is important for community activists to provide lots of information about the significance of a building threatened with demolition. It is also helpful to provide specific suggestions on how the proposed project can be changed to save the historic building and meet most of the developer’s goals.
CEQA is flexible enough to allow historic buildings to adapt to changing needs over time. This means that, for example, an abandoned building that was once an important gathering place can be altered or expanded to meet the developer’s needs, while still maintaining its presence in the community.
Public Role in the Scoping Process
Share your memories.
Submit a letter during the scoping process explaining why the historic site is important, including personal stories, interviews, newspaper articles, old photos, flyers, and mementos.
Share your ideas.
Provide specific suggestions on how the project can be changed to save the historic building and accomplish at least some of the developer’s goals. The project goals should be listed in the Notice of Preparation.
Submit a written request to the Planning Department staff assigned to the project asking to receive notice of future public meetings and documents released for public comment.
Develop clear and concise messaging.
Work with others to create talking points that summarize the building’s significance and the goals of your campaign. You and others can use the talking points for clarity and consistency in speaking with other residents, potential allies, media, and public officials.
Meet with elected officials.
Contact your City Councilmember or County Supervisor early in the process. Meet with them or their staff to explain why the building is important, and ask for their help in identifying possible solutions or mediating discussions with the developer.
Seek media coverage.
Favorable press coverage is essential to swaying public opinion and persuading elected officials. Community activists need to build relationships with the media by hosting press events, issuing press releases, and submitting letters to the editor.
Step 2: The Draft Environmental Impact Report
Following the scoping process, the lead agency prepares a draft version of the EIR that is released to the public for comment. In general, the public review period for a Draft EIR ranges from thirty to sixty days. The EIR must contain a summary of the proposed project and its environmental consequences—including a list of significant negative impacts—and study a reasonable range of alternatives to the project that would reduce those impacts. It must also address the issues raised in your comments on the Notice of Preparation during the previous scoping process.
You should receive a copy of the EIR, most likely on disk, if you asked for notification in the previous step. If not, check the Planning Department page on the lead agency’s website to download a copy. EIRs are very lengthy documents; you can get much of what you need from the Executive Summary.
In commenting on the Draft EIR, community activists will need to continue advocating for alternatives that can save the historic building while meeting most of the developer’s goals.
Would reducing the size of the proposed project help save the historic building? Can the historic building be modified or expanded to meet the owner’s needs? Historic preservation efforts are rarely successful if they oppose demolition without offering an alternative that takes into account the developer’s financial needs and other project goals. A purely anti-demolition stance may be discounted as extreme and inflexible.
Although CEQA helps safeguard historic buildings, it does not dictate
how they should be used. It’s easier to build public and political support for an alternative solution that meets most of the goals of the proposed project.
Public Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report
Read the Executive Summary.
The EIR can be lengthy and difficult to understand. Start by reading the Executive Summary for an overview of the project and its goals, environmental impacts, and possible alternatives.
Read the Historic Resources/Cultural Resources section of the EIR.
Learn about how the lead agency has analyzed the historic and cultural significance of the existing building or property, and what project alternatives have been considered that would preserve some or all of the historic resource.
Attend public meetings.
When the lead agency holds meetings on the project, it is essential for community members to show up and voice their concerns. Because political pressure to approve a project can be intense, it is important that the community be well organized to rally against demolition.
Bring in the experts.
If the lead agency says that a historic resource cannot be saved because of its location or poor condition, get help from an architect, engineer, or friendly developer who specializes in historic buildings. They can present an alternative proposal, evaluate its costs, or challenge negative claims by the owner.
Talk to an attorney.
Seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in CEQA to help you participate most effectively in the EIR process. In many instances, CEQA lawyers represent community groups on a pro bono basis or at a reduced rate, especially if you are well organized. For names of attorneys who specialize in CEQA and historic preservation law, you can contact Preservation Sacramento.
Step 3: Final Environmental Impact Report
The Final EIR must respond to all comments and questions submitted during the Draft EIR review period, as well as evaluate the feasibility of alternatives that would preserve the historic building. Based on the analyses in the Final
EIR, the lead agency will then decide whether or not to approve the proposed project.
Although the lead agency is not required to solicit comments on the Final EIR, there are typically additional hearings before local review boards and commissions—such as the Planning Commission or City Council committees—where the public can testify and submit written information. In the final stage of the process, the lead agency will “certify” the EIR and approve the proposed project or an alternative project. They may also approve a list of requirements, or “mitigation measures,” that must be completed in order to reduce environmental impacts. If adverse environmental impacts cannot be avoided, the lead agency will adopt a “statement of overriding considerations,” expressing the agency’s determination that the advantages of proceeding with the project outweigh the detriment of losing a valuable historic resource, and explaining why. This determination may, in some circumstances, be challenged in court.
Public Role In Certifying the Environmental Impact Report
Continue to submit new information. It is extremely important for the community to participate in every step of the EIR process. Although it is most effective when submitted early on in the process, testimony and information supporting the significance of a building or the feasibility of an alternative can be submitted at any time before the final decision on the project.