What is Environmental Review?
The Environmental Planning Division of the Planning Department reviews projects for potential environmental impacts on the City of San Francisco and its residents, a process known as environmental review.
Reviews are conducted pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Chapter 31 of the San Francisco Administrative Code, which provides guidelines for implementing the CEQA process. The reviews identify any potential adverse environmental effects of proposed actions, assesses their significance, and proposes measures to eliminate or mitigate significant impacts. Only certain smaller-scale actions identified by the state, known as Categorical Exemptions, are exempt from environmental review.
What is subject to Environmental Review?
Most development, infrastructure and transportation projects, proposed regulatory changes, and permitting applications are subject to the "environmental review process."
- Local industrial, commercial, mixed use and residential developments or redevelopments
- Local and regional transit and transportation projects
- New or amended local, state, and federal rules and regulations
Current Documents for Public Review
Environmental Planning posts many documents for public review associated with the projects and proposed actions we are currently reviewing.
Environmental Review Process
The Environmental Review Process Summary provides more information regarding the CEQA review process conducted by Environmental Planning. The environmental review process can involve a number of steps, beginning with:
- The proposed action considered for review is screened to determine if it may be exempt from Environmental Review, known as a Categorical Exemption from CEQA. What's This?
- Supplemental Information Form for Historical Resource Evaluation What's This?
- Tree Disclosure Statement from San Francisco Preservation Bulletin No. 16 What's This?
- Community Plan Exemptions What's This?
- If a proposed action is determined to be exempt from CEQA, some or all of the following steps can be taken:
- If a proposed action is determined not to be exempt from CEQA, some or all of the following steps can be taken depending on the scope of the project:
- Environmental Evaluation (EE) Application What's This?
- Initial Study What's This?
- Special Studies What's This?
- Shadow Study
- Transportation Impact Study
- Negative Declaration What's This?
- Preliminary Negative Declarations (PND) or Preliminary Mitigated Negative Declarations (PND)
- Final Negative Declaration (FND) or Final Mitigated Negative Declaration (FMND)
- Appeals of Negative Declarations- Includes a Public Comment period
- Environmental Impact Reports (EIR)- Includes a Public Comment period What's This?
Categorical Exemption from CEQA, also known as "Cat Ex"
Categorical exemptions from CEQA review are generally issued for smaller-scale projects. View the list categorical exemptions adopted by the San Francisco Planning Commission.
Categorical exemption may be issued via an exemption stamp at the Planning Information Center (PIC) Counter (1660 Mission Street, First Floor), or the project sponsor may be asked to submit an Environmental Evaluation Application. This application is used for both environmental exemption and environmental evaluation.
Community Plan Exemptions from CEQA
Community plan exemption from CEQA review may be issued for projects within adopted community/area plans.
Historical Resource Evaluation and Tree Disclosure Statement
Additional environmental applications that may need to be submitted to Environmental Planning before a project can be determined exempt from environmental review are the Supplemental Information Form for Historical Resource Evaluation and the Tree Disclosure Statement. In addition, San Francisco Preservation Bulletin No. 16 provides further direction and guidance for the environmental review of historical resources.
Notice of Exemption/Determination
For projects that are exempt from environmental evaluation, the project sponsor may request that a Notice of Exemption (NOE) be filed after the project is approved. Though not required, the NOE shortens the statute of limitations for legal challenges under CEQA from 180 calendar days to between 30 and 35 calendar days.
A Notice of Determination (NOD) may be filed upon approval of a project for which a ND, MND, or EIR has been prepared. The filing of a NOD starts a 30-calendar day statute of limitations on court challenges to the approval under CEQA. If no NOD is filed, the statuteof limitations is 180 calendar days.
The NOE or NOD must not be filed until after the project is approved but within five working days of project approval. It is possible that several NODs may be needed for one project if the project requires multiple approvals at different times. To file a NOE or NOD, the project sponsor must submit a fee to the County Clerk. A higher fee established by the State Department of Fish and Game is required for filing a NOD for a project that may result in an adverse impact on sensitive species, sensitive habitat, or wildlife migration.
Appeal of Exemption
A determination of exemption may be appealed to the Board of Supervisors (the Board). The procedures for filing an appeal of an exemption determination are available from the Clerk of the Board at City Hall, Room 244, or by calling (415) 554-5184.
Environmental Evaluation (EE) Application
For projects not exempt from environmental evaluation, the project sponsor (private applicant or government agency) files a completed EE application by appointment with the assigned Environmental Planning application intake planner along with an applicable fee based on the construction cost of the proposed project.* The fee schedule and contact information for the intake planner are available at the PIC, 1660 Mission Street, First Floor, or by calling (415) 558-6377. EE applications may be filed prior to or concurrently with building permit applications.
After the completed EE application has been submitted, an Initial Study is prepared for the proposed project by Environmental Planning staff. View a sample Initial Study Evaluation Checklist. Projects are evaluated on the basis of the information supplied in the EE application, any additional information required from the applicant, research, and contact with affected public agencies, citizens groups, and concerned individuals, all by or under the direction of Environmental Planning staff. Initial studies for some large or complex projects may need to be prepared by a consultant rather than by Environmental Planning staff.
To assist Environmental Planning staff in the environmental evaluation process, the project sponsor may be required to provide supplemental data or studies to the assigned Environmental Planning application intake planner to address potential impacts on soils, traffic, biological resources, wind, shadows, noise, or other issue areas.
- If a Shadow Study (View the Shadow Study Application Packet) is required, the project sponsor files a Shadow Study Application along with a fee (see fee schedule; cash not accepted), and Department staff prepares the shadow fan analysis.
- If a Transportation Impact Analysis (View the Transportation Impact Analysis Guidelines) is required, the project sponsor submits two fees (cash not accepted): one to the Planning Department (see fee schedule) and one $4,000 fee to the Municipal Transportation Agency. Fees are generally non-refundable and are in addition to costs paid by the project sponsor for consultant prepared reports.
Negative Declaration, also known as "Neg Dec"
If during the Initial Study process the Department determines that the proposed project would not have a significant effect on the environment, a Preliminary Negative Declaration (PND) is issued, advertised in a local newspaper, posted at the Department and on the subject site, and mailed to various parties as requested.
If the Initial Study anticipates that the project would result in significant impacts on the environment, the project may be revised to include mitigation measures; an EIR may not be necessary if the project sponsor agrees to mitigate such impacts to a level that is less than significant. In such cases, a Preliminary Mitigated Negative Declaration (PMND) is issued and noticed after the Initial Study process is completed.
Appeal of Negative Declarations - Includes a Public Comment period
During the 20 (or 30 if required by CEQA) calendar days after legal advertisement, concerned parties may comment on the adequacy of the PND or PMND, request revisions or appeal the determination, and/or request preparation of an EIR. Substantive comments related to environmental effects will be incorporated into the Negative Declaration (ND) or the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). Appeals must be in the form of a letter to the Environmental Review Officer stating the grounds for the appeal and must include an appeal fee (see fee schedule; cash not accepted). The Planning Commission will decide the appeal at an advertised public hearing, which must be scheduled between 14 and 30 calendar days after the close of the appeal period. The Planning Commission may (1) sustain the ND or MND as written, (2) amend the ND or MND, or (3) require that an EIR be prepared. If there has been no appeal within 20 or 30 calendar days, a Final Negative Declaration (FND) or Final Mitigated Negative Declaration (FMND) is signed by the Environmental Review Officer and issued. Approval decisions may then be made on the proposed action.
Appeal of FND or FMND
FNDs and FMNDs are appealable to the Board of Supervisors. The procedures for filing an appeal of an FND or FMND determination may be obtained from the Clerk of the Board at City Hall, Room 244, or by calling (415) 554-5184.
Environmental Impact Reports (EIR)
Before or during the Initial Study process, the Department may determine that the project could have a significant effect on the environment and that an EIR is required. The determination that an EIR is required is published in a local newspaper, posted at the Department, and mailed to various parties.
Administrative Draft EIR (DEIR)
If an EIR is required, the project sponsor must have an Administrative Draft EIR (ADEIR) prepared by a qualified environmental consultant and submitted to Environmental Planning staff. Fees for processing the EIR are billed when Environmental Planning advertises the EIR requirement, and are payable upon submittal of the first ADEIR. This first administrative draft is reviewed by Environmental Planning staff in consultation with other relevant Department staff and public agencies. Two or three revisions of the ADEIR are often required for completion of research and verification of accuracy before the material is ready for publication.
Draft EIR Publication and Public Hearing
When Environmental Planning determines that the ADEIR is acceptable for publication, the Department assumes authorship, authorizes publication of the Draft EIR (DEIR), and advertises in a local newspaper that the DEIR is available for public review, will be considered by the Commission at a specified public hearing, and what, if any, significant impacts are identified in the DEIR. The public hearing before the Commission generally occurs about five weeks after publication of the DEIR. The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony related to the accuracy and completeness of the DEIR; written comments are also accepted during the review period, which generally extends at least five days beyond the hearing.
Final EIR Certification (FEIR)
Following the DEIR hearing, a Comments and Responses document is prepared to respond to all substantive issues raised in the written and oral testimony. The document is distributed to the Planning Commission, commentors, and others as requested. After review of the Comments and Responses document, including any revisions to the DEIR and incorporation into the EIR of any further changes requested by the Commission, the Commission certifies at a public meeting that the Final EIR (FEIR) has been completed in compliance with state law, and determines whether the project would or would not have a significant effect on the environment. It is important to note that certification does not approve or disapprove a project, but rather concludes that the EIR complies with CEQA and provides environmental information regarding the proposed project to serve as one of the elements upon which a reasoned decision is based.
If the Commission determines that the proposed project would have a significant effect on the environment, it may approve a project by one of two ways: (1) require changes in the project to reduce or avoid environmental damage if it finds such changes feasible (generally via alternatives and/or mitigation), or (2) find that changes are infeasible and make a statement of overriding considerations. CEQA requires decision-makers to balance the benefits of a proposed project against its unavoidable environmental risks in determining whether to approve the project. If the benefits of a proposed project would outweigh the unavoidable adverse environmental effects, those adverse effects may be considered "acceptable." The Commission must, in such cases, state in writing the specific reasons to support its action based on the FEIR and/or other information in the record.
Appeal of EIR
The certification of an FEIR is appealable to the Board. Any person or entity that has submitted comments to the Commission or the Environmental Review Officer may appeal the Commission's certification of the FEIR to the Board within 20 calendar days after the Commission's certification of the FEIR. Appeals must be in the form of a letter to the Board stating the ground of the appeal, with submittal of an appeal fee (see fee schedule; cash not accepted).
Upon review by the Department, the appeal fee may be reimbursed for neighborhood organizations that have been in existence for a minimum of 24 months. The Board may reject by motion an appeal that fails to state proper grounds for the appeal. The Board must act on valid appeals at an advertised public hearing, which must be scheduled within 30 calendar days after the Commission's certification of the FEIR, but may in certain circumstances extend such time period up to 90 calendar days from the date of filing the appeal. The Board may affirm or reverse the certification by the Commission by a majority vote. If the Board affirms the Commission's certification, the FEIR is considered certified on the date upon which the Commission originally certified the FEIR. If the Board reverses the Commission's certification, the Board must make specific findings and remand the FEIR to the Commission for further action consistent with the Board's findings. The Commission must take such action as may be required by the Board and consider recertification of the EIR. Only the new or revised portions of the FEIR may then be appealed again to the Board.