To comply with CEQA, a public agency first considers whether a proposed activity qualifies as a “project” subject to environmental review. If a proposed activity is not a “project,” no further action is required under CEQA.
If a proposed activity qualifies as a “project,” the public agency next considers whether any CEQA exemption applies to the project. The CEQA exemptions can be found in the Public Resources Code and the CEQA Guidelines. If a “project” qualifies for an exemption, the exemption may be documented in the public agency’s files for the project and a Notice of Exemption may be filed and posted with the County Clerk. Nothing further is required by CEQA.
If a public agency finds that a “project” does not qualify for an exemption, the public agency will then determine whether the “project” requires a negative declaration, mitigated negative declaration or EIR. Generally, if the “project” will result in significant impacts that cannot be mitigated, an EIR will be prepared. Otherwise, a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration will be prepared.
Here, the City determined that the proposed gas station was a “project” subject to CEQA. The City next considered whether any CEQA exemptions applied to the project. One of CEQA’s exemptions, known as the Class 32 exemption, applies to in-fill development projects. In order to qualify for the Class 32 exemption, the following conditions must be met:
- This project is consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as the applicable zoning designation and regulations.
- The proposed development occurs within city limits on a project site of no more than five (5) acres substantially surrounded by urban uses.
- The project site has no value as habitat for endangered, rare or threatened species.
- Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.
- The site can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services.
The City evaluated whether the proposed gas station met the criteria for the Class 32 exemption. Technical studies were prepared in the areas of traffic, noise, air quality, and water quality, among others. Those studies concluded that the project qualified for the Class 32 exemption. Pursuant to CEQA, no further environmental review is required.
The use of the Class 32 Exemption was not a loophole nor does it mean that no environmental review was done by the City for the project. A project could only qualify under the Class 32 Exemption after the City has reviewed all aspects of the project including technical studies that are required to evaluate the potential impacts (i.e. studies for traffic, water quality, air quality & noise). The reports compiled by the applicant and reviewed by the City would be the same reports used in the preparation of an EIR.