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What are Exemptions Under CEQA and How Are They Used?

There are types of exemptions under CEQA: statutory and categorical. Statutory exemptions are projects specifically excluded from CEQA consideration as defined by the State Legislature. These exemptions are delineated in PRC § 21080 et seq. A statutory exemption applies to any given project that falls under its definition, regardless of the project’s potential impacts to the environment. However, it is important to note that any CEQA exemption applies only to CEQA and not, of course, to any other state, local or federal laws that may be applicable to a proposed project.

Categorical exemptions operate very differently from statutory exemptions. Categorical exemptions are made up of classes of projects that generally are considered not to have potential impacts on the environment. Categorical exemptions are identified by the State Resources Agency and are defined in the CEQA Guidelines (14 CCR Section 15300-15331). Unlike statutory exemptions, categorical exemptions are not allowed to be used for projects that may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of an historical resource (14 CCR Section 15300.2(f)). Therefore, lead agencies must first determine if the project has the potential to impact historical resources and if those impacts could be adverse prior to determining if a categorical exemption may be utilized for any given project.

If it is determined that a statutory or categorical exemption could be used for a project, the lead agency may produce a notice of exemption, but is not required to do so. If a member of the public feels that a categorical exemption is being improperly used because the project could have a significant adverse impact on historical resources, it is very important that any appeals be requested and comments be filed making the case for the exemption’s impropriety. If a notice of exemption is filed, a 35-day statute of limitations will begin on the day the project is approved. If a notice is not filed, a 180-day statute of limitations will apply. As a result, lead agencies are encouraged to file notices of exemption to limit the possibility of legal challenge.