In the United States, the environmental review process varies between cities, states, and the federal government. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) serves as the guiding document for environmental review in California and has paved the way for similar legislation on the federal level (the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]), the state level in New York (the State Environmental Review Act [SEQR]), and the city level in New York City (City Environmental Quality Review [CEQR]). To better understand the similarities and differences of each, we sat down with Project Manager and NEPA Expert Tony Lee and Environmental Planner Kay Real to discuss their professional experience with CEQA, NEPA, SEQR, and CEQR.
What is your background working in New York on the local, state, and federal levels?
Kay: I worked for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development for four years before coming to Impact Sciences. I facilitated the development of affordable housing to drive forward the Mayor’s Housing New York initiative. I managed a portfolio of affordable housing projects, advanced predevelopment milestones, and ushered projects through New York City’s public review process to get project approval. Part of that process was getting environmental approvals, and those environmental approvals were subject to the city’s environmental quality review rather than the state environmental quality review. Both are pronounced “Seeker,” (CEQR/SEQR), one with an “S” and one with a “C.”
I worked with CEQR. I was on the planning side of things, and we had an in-house environmental team that reviewed environmental assessment statements and EISs [Environmental Impact Statements] that were prepared by consultants. I would coordinate the submission of those documents and review them for accuracy; usually those were negative declarations. I never had a project that had a significant environmental issue while I was working in New York City.
Tony: Most of my career has been in New York State, working with different agencies, including the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York City Department of Transportation, New York City Transit and other agencies based in the New York City metropolitan area. My experience has included producing programmatic and project-specific EISs that were New York State SEQR and NEPA. One of the most exciting environmental documents I prepared was for the re-building of the World Trade Center after the events of 9/11. The document was a programmatic EIS prepared to be NEPA and SEQR compliant. We started with the Notice of Intent for NEPA purposes, which is the equivalent of a CEQA Notice of Preparation in California. We went from the start of that to the Record of Decision (which is the end of the process) in 11 months—typically the process averages more than three years.
Based on the roles you both have had in New York and your current roles working with CEQA in California, how do you see the differences in what New York is doing verses California?
Kay: New York’s environmental review process is based on California’s process. California came first and then New York took that outline and said, ‘we’re going to do that here.’ So they are very similar.
Tony: I would say the New York State law is more like NEPA than CEQA. NEPA was based on California’s CEQA, but CEQA requires mitigation to any significant impacts. Neither NEPA nor SEQR require mitigation. NEPA document practitioners really like to say it’s a disclosure document. It’s simply a document to disclose what those impacts may be, and no mitigation is required. CEQA is very prescriptive by including thresholds of how much you need to mitigate. In the New York State law and NEPA, there isn’t any of that.
Fun fact for those who don’t know: NEPA is an Executive Order that was put in place. It’s only a seven page Executive Order—its short! And out of the Executive Order comes thousands of pages of documents. I think it’s [CEQA] not as prescriptive as New York State law or NEPA. As Kay knows from working with New York City CEQR, the city just did a major overhaul of their handbook/guidebook. The New York City law, CEQR, is more prescriptive than SEQR and NEPA, I think, and does have some mitigation requirements.
Why might CEQA be more prescriptive? Is it to reduce barriers for applicants?
Tony: I think a lot of applicants would welcome clear thresholds and mitigations, that way they can plan their budgets and their schedules around it. There’s probably a good number of applicants that would rather not have it that way. I think also with EISs, whether its California, New York State, or New York City, it’s a very small portion of the environmental compliance needs or requirements that projects have. It’s less than 1%. I think you’d be surprised how few EISs are done throughout the nation. I think that has something to do with it—EISs are so rare.
Personally, for you both in your own transitions from working in New York to now working in California, what has that transition been like for you?
Kay: It is interesting to see how politicized CEQA is. I guess the same thing happens in New York, but the city doesn’t really use [CEQR] as a crutch to sue projects as much as I see it here. Also, the number of topic areas that need to be analyzed—there is much more breadth here than in New York.
Tony: I would agree. Excellent point Kay. CEQA documents are a lot more prescriptive and harder to write. In a lot of ways, NEPA is easy compared to CEQA. In some ways, it isn’t. In some ways, NEPA, because of the gray area, you need to use your judgement and use experienced consultants like Impact Sciences that have more than 30 years of CEQA and NEPA experience that can help a client or city, especially on the NEPA side, where there is so much gray area.
Have there been any learning curves for you, and how have you solved those issues in your day-to-day work?
Kay: Knowing the content of an environmental review has been the learning curve—learning the regulations and state statutes, and how they might apply to a particular project. I had to learn all of that from scratch, and I think I will still be learning that for years to come. Just finding the appropriate resources to support a conclusion can be a challenge. It’s been interesting to learn as I go.
Tony: Most of my CEQA experience have involved preparing EISs, and almost all of them are joint CEQA Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) and EISs. The trick is that everyone loves to talk about streamlining and doing both CEQA and NEPA compliance in the same document, when in fact that’s quite difficult. (There are many reasons not to streamline, such as it not meeting the agency/project sponsor’s schedule timing and funding availability. For example, LA Metro has increasingly conducted two concurrent processes.) Like what Kay said, just matching up two requirements and making sure that you’re using the right terminology can be a challenge. Something I pointed out earlier was the Notice of Intent verses the Notice of Preparation. You must meet the statutes and regulatory requirements, especially in terms of public noticing. As Kay knows with CEQA, that’s a big litigation risk of just not following the process of how much time to give someone to comment when giving that notice. Unfortunately, I think dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” is not the spirit of CEQA, but that’s what it comes down to as CEQA has become a tool for opponents of a project. In streamlining, the larger challenge is when agencies attempt to do split documents on the same project. As we know, large, complex projects continue to evolve after CEQA has been done, so new data needs to be used when approaching NEPA even though it’s on the same project. So those are all challenges too.
We know California’s CEQA came first, followed by New York State and then NEPA. In the reverse, what can California learn from New York?
Kay: There’s a conversation that’s happening in New York City about whether or not to include the racial implications of a project in environmental analysis, such as whether a project would cause gentrification and displacement. It is an interesting conversation.
Tony: As a practitioner, I think it’s a little disturbing that the California state legislature took the action they just did regarding Cal [UC Berkeley]. We’re starting to see this trend of state legislature exempting projects—specific projects, not just types of projects—and really invalidating CEQA or allowing applicants to bypass the CEQA process. That doesn’t somewhat answer your question, but New York State doesn’t do that.
Do you think project exemption has something to do with the political aspects mentioned earlier?
Tony: Yeah absolutely. I mean, these are politically motivated actions. I think it’s born out of legitimate frustrations with CEQA delaying good projects, and obviously the state legislature feels there are some projects that are good, that they exempted CEQA review.
In New York, how does the public review process compare to that of CEQA?
Kay: In New York City, for typical non-contentious projects, the public review process for CEQR is part of the public review process for the discretionary action—they’re not separate. The preliminary environmental determination is included in the land use application, and the remainder of the review is done in tandem. For large projects that require a more intensive environmental review, such as an EIS, that public review is similar to a CEQA public review process. There’s a scoping meeting and a comment period, etc.
Tony: On the state level, its 30 days, as opposed to 45 days for CEQA, but generally the time frames are very similar. There are some details about when you must have a public hearing and how many days before the close of a comment period for a draft EIS or EIR as it varies between 5 days and 10 days. It’s 10 in New York State and 5 days for CEQA.
How do you envision states collaborating or working together to reduce environmental impacts? There’s the federal level, obviously, but how can states have more communication with each other when it comes to these types of protections?
Kay: CEQA is more stringent than NEPA, and while it would be great if the two reviews lined up to reduce the amount of document preparation, I imagine it would be difficult to get other states on board with California’s requirements.
Tony: I think the more controversial thing the Trump Administration put out was their executive orders and the recent overhaul of CEQ regulations. However, I think there are some things in there that are interesting that have been kicked around for decades, and that’s a page limit for NEPA EISs. The limit of 300 pages for EISs and limiting NEPA environmental assessments to 75 pages would certainly help streamline things in terms of having consistency across states. [This has since been reversed by the Biden Administration].
That’s tough, unfortunately. I think the state of the union is that were going in the reverse where there’s really a lot of local and state control. I think given the state of where we are now, that would be very hard, even with California and New York agreeing. Something to point out is that there are 20 states with California-equivalent environmental review processes. There are very few states that have a statewide environmental quality act, and it’s surprising to some people that without NEPA (and NEPA is only triggered when you need a federal agency to provide approval or permit), you don’t have environmental review or a state environmental quality review act.
CEQA was enacted into law in the year 1970 in California and continues to be a foundational environmental law that has inspired legislation on federal, state, and local levels across the United States. While New York came after in the year 1975 with SEQR, planners in California and New York have an opportunity to learn from one another’s planning methods as they work to provide accurate and streamlined environmental documents. Our team at Impact Sciences comes from a diverse background of experience, allowing the team to apply its wide range of knowledge to all aspects of the environmental review process.
If you’d like to learn more about CEQA and NEPA, we’d love to hear from you. Shoot us a message.
 As of 2020, the CEQR technical manual now includes an environmental justice element stating that if the impacts of a project effect an environmental justice community CP 29 calls for “providing enhanced public participation opportunities for the members of that community, often in addition to the public participation requirements of CEQR and SEQR
 SB 1000 is now also proposing something similar in California. This bill would require the addition of an environmental justice element to general plans. The intention is to identify goals, policies, and objectives to reduce unique health risks, promote civil engagement in the public process, and prioritize programs that address the needs of disadvantaged communities.