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Environmental Assessment Procedures

Last modified: 7/22/2014 11:29 AM

Environmental review involves the evaluation of the potential impact of a project upon the environment. Environmental review is a legal requirement for a variety of project types, including land development, change in land use, and change in regulations applicable to land use and development. Such evaluation is mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)​.

The purpose of environmental review is to:

  • Inform governmental decision-makers and the public of the potential environmental effects of proposed activities.
  • Identify the ways that environmental damage can be avoided or significantly reduced.
  • Prevent environmental degradation resulting from proposed land developments by requiring changes in projects through the use of alternatives or mitigation measures when the County finds that the changes are feasible.
  • Disclose to the public the reasons why the County approved the project in the manner chosen if significant environmental effects remain.

Categorical Exemption

CEQA has set aside certain types of projects which are exempt from environmental review. These categories include such projects as construction of single family homes, minor alterations of existing structures, and minor grading projects. A complete listing of the "categorical exemptions" is available at the Planning Office counter. The applicant may need to complete a "Petition for Exemption" which will be reviewed by Planning staff before the proposed project is found eligible for the categorical exemption.

When examining the list of exemptions, you should be aware that the County is required to assess certain projects that might otherwise be exempt. Such situations might involve particular circumstances where the project could impact a particularly sensitive resource or degrade the environment in some manner.

Environmental Assessment

An Environmental Assessment is the evaluation of the potential impact of a proposed development project on the environment. The planner working on the environmental assessment will use a checklist, called an initial study, to evaluate the potential for your particular project to have a significant adverse impact on the environment. Among other things, this checklist evaluates conformance with the General Plan, the Zoning Ordinance, and any other pertinent policies; looks at health and safety issues such as groundwater contamination and geological stability; evaluates any potential traffic impacts; and considers the potential impacts on environmental resources such as plants and animals, parks and open space, and historical or archaeological resources.

Proposed projects requiring any of the land use approvals listed below must file for an Environmental Assessment unless a previously certified CEQA document (Negative Declaration, or Environmental Impact Report) adequately addresses the environmental impacts of the proposed project.

  • Building site approval with 30% or more slope) of proposed development area in the R1E, RHS, or HS zoning districts
  • Building site approval (in the Upper Guadalupe Creek Watershed)
  • General plan amendment
  • Grading permit - more than 1,500 cubic yards total (May file for Cat. Exemption if property is flat, and no riparian area, hazardous environmental situation or environmental resource of concern is involved).
  • Grading abatement [same as grading permit]
  • Grading Modification [same as grading permit]
  • Subdivisions outside an urban service area.
  • Subdivisions for five or more lots within an urban service area.
  • Surface mining reclamation plan

Proposed projects requiring any of the land use approvals below may also be subject to an environmental assessment if the project involves any impact to any environmental resource of concern (e.g. riparian areas, archaeological, biological, visual impacts/aesthetics, hazards, traffic, etc).

  • Architecture and site approval (ASA) & ASA modification / small project exemption
  • Grading permit - less than 1500 cubic yds
  • Lot line adjustment
  • Use permit
  • Zone change

Negative Declaration

Once staff has completed the environmental assessment, they will make a determination based on their evaluation. The planner may find that either 1) the project will not have an impact on the environment or that, 2) although the project could have a significant impact on the environment, there will not be a significant effect in this case since mitigation measures have been added to the project [These mitigation measures could be certain changes in the project (agreed to by the applicant) or standard County requirements to eliminate the potential impacts that have been identified.].

Based on this determination, the planner will recommend that the appropriate decision-making body adopt a Negative Declaration. The Negative Declaration is simply a legal statement that either the project will not have an impact on the environment, or that certain mitigation measures have been required as part of the project to ensure that no significant impacts will occur.

Environmental Impact Report [EIR]

An EIR is more rigorous than a typical environmental assessment in its evaluation of the potential impacts of a proposed development project on the environment. It also involves specific legal requirements respecting review periods, findings and public hearings.

If the planner finds that the project may have a significant impact on the environment and that there are no obvious actions the applicant can take to mitigate potential problems, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) may be required. An EIR may also be required if further study is needed to provide information necessary to determining whether the project could have an impact. EIRs are most likely associated with major projects or projects that are likely to generate considerable public controversy regarding their impact upon the environment.

If an EIR is required, it will generally focus on those subject areas where potential impacts might occur, based on the information gathered in the initial study or a scope of work. For example, if there are no known archaeological resources in the area, the EIR would not require an archaeological evaluation.

Procedures for Consultants

Initial studies for more complex projects or EIRs are prepared by private consultants contracted by and under the direction of the County and paid for by funds provided by the applicant. The process under which such documents are prepared is described in "Procedures for Consultants to Prepare Environmental Documents for Private Projects in Santa Clara County"

Monitoring Program

The State of California requires that a monitoring program be adopted for all projects which might result in potentially significant environmental impacts. This monitoring is required even where measures have been proposed to reduce the impact to a less than significant level. The monitoring program is designed to insure that applicants follow through on the mitigation measures required by the decision-making body. The complexity of the monitoring program depends on the type of project that is being undertaken. Monitoring may be as simple as a one-time check to make sure a creek permit has been obtained, or as complex as annual visits or reports ensuring that an endangered animal has been protected, that traffic goals have been met, or that landscaping has been planted and maintained.

How Does the Environmental Assessment Fit into the Permit Process?

At the time you file an application for your project, the appropriate fees will be collected for an environmental assessment or to review for possible use of a prior CEQA document or a categorical exemption. If it is clear that your project will require an EIR, those fees and monitoring fees must also be paid.

Once the fees are paid, the application will be referred to various County agencies to determine if the plans clearly describe the project and if all required information has been submitted. These agencies examine the application and determine whether or not it is complete for them to carry out their responsibilities. After we have received the referral responses, notification is sent to you by the Planning Office either declaring your application complete or indicating what additional information is needed.

When your application is complete, one of two things will happen. [1] If your project does not require environmental assessment, it is directed, together with a staff recommendation, to the appropriate hearing body for standard processing. [2] If an environmental assessment is required, a planner will be assigned to complete an environmental assessment for your project (unless the document will be prepared by a consultant under County direction). The completed assessment and a staff recommendation on the project will be sent to the appropriate hearing body for their decision.


Any person dissatisfied with the environmental determination may appeal to the Board of Supervisors within the 15 calendar days that follow the public hearing. Each separate appeal shall be filed at the Planning Office, and must be accompanied by the appropriate filing fee listed in the current fee schedule.

Environmental Procedures Assistance and Guidelines

Environmental Info Cover Document  
This document gives a brief overview of the environmental review process, and describes all the type of environmental review forms and types of applications which require environmental review.

Procedures for Consultants to Prepare Environmental Documents for Private Projects in Santa Clara County Document(PDF)

Environmental Forms

All Environmental forms can be found here

For additional information, please contact:

County of Santa Clara
Planning Office
70 West Hedding Street, East Wing
San Jose, CA 95110
(408) 299-5770