The level of analysis required by CEQA is determined by the lead agency upon receipt of a proposed discretionary project. In some cases, the state has decided that no environmental review is necessary and a project is exempt from the environmental review process. There are two sources of exemptions. One source is the CEQA statute and these exemptions are referred to as “statutory exemptions.” Statutory exemptions include ministerial projects where no discretion is involved (e.g. building permit), residential infill projects meeting certain requirements, regional transportation improvement programs and housing needs allocation. The other source of exemption in the CEQA Guidelines, known as “categorical exemptions.” Categorical exemptions include classes of projects such as replacement or reconstruction of buildings and minor alterations to land that the state has determined not to have a significant effect on the environment. If a project is not exempt, then an initial study (IS) is typically prepared to determine the level of environmental review, which can be a negative declaration (ND), mitigated negative declaration (MND), or an environmental impact report (EIR). For some projects, a lead agency may determine that an EIR is required without the need to prepare an initial study.
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The California Environmental Quality Act (commonly referred to as CEQA) was adopted in 1970 and is one of the foundational environmental laws in the State of California. CEQA applies to discretionary projects, such as zoning changes, variances, conditional use permits, and subdivision maps, proposed to be approved or carried out by the City that may result in a change in the environment. The environment means the physical conditions which exist in the area including land, air, water, minerals, flora and fauna, ambient noise and objects of historic or aesthetic significance. At its core, CEQA is an informational law. CEQA requires lead agencies, such as the City of Menlo Park, to carry out the law by analyzing potential environmental impacts of a proposed project and informing decision makers and the public of any potential environmental impacts of the proposed project and, where feasible, mitigating potential environmental impacts. Implementation of any feasible mitigations identified by the CEQA analysis would be the responsibility of the project sponsor (typically referred to as the applicant) and the lead agency would be responsible for monitoring and ensuring implementation.
The purpose of CEQA and environmental review at any level is to:
Typically, an initial study (IS) prepared by the lead agency is used to determine whether the appropriate CEQA document is a negative declaration (ND), a mitigated negative declaration (MND) or an environmental impact report (EIR). A ND is appropriate where all of the potential environmental impacts are less than significant. A MND is appropriate where all potential environmental impacts can be mitigated to less than significant with the implementation of mitigation measures. An EIR or full environmental review is only required where the proposed project could result in a significant and unavoidable adverse impact.
Because of a legal settlement agreement with the City of East Palo Alto regarding ConnectMenlo, currently some proposed projects that would require only a mitigated negative declaration (MND) are required to prepare an EIR focused on housing and transportation issues.
The CEQA process provides multiple opportunities for members of the public, interested agencies and City decision-making bodies including the Planning Commission and City Council to provide input on the scope of the analysis, the draft environmental documents and the final environmental documents. More details about the process is described in the FAQ question What are the steps in the EIR process?
Environmental documents are used as an informational tool to disclose potential environmental impacts of a proposed project. As part of the development review process, the final decision-making body on the proposed project will make a decision to adopt a negative declaration (ND) or a mitigated negative declaration (MND) or certify an environmental impact report (EIR) as compliant with all CEQA requirements. If the CEQA analysis shows a significant and unavoidable impact(s), the decision-makers would need to make findings and a statement of overriding considerations that the specific economic, legal, social, technological or other benefits of the proposed project outweigh the significant and unavoidable impacts before a project can be approved; otherwise the city may deny the project based upon adverse environmental impacts.
There are different steps and review timelines for a negative declaration (ND) or a mitigated negative declaration (MND), however, this discussion will focus on the environmental impact report (EIR) process. For a proposed project that requires an EIR the following steps are incorporated into the review process: