On June 2, 2010, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) adopted stringent and landmark guidelines for mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and particulate matter (PM 2.5) from land use projects. The new guidelines may have a major impact on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for these projects. There is also speculation that the Guidelines adopted by BAAQMD, which is the air regulator for the nine-county Bay Area region, may be adopted by other air districts in the State or used by environmentalists to challenge land use projects in other air districts that would rise above the Guidelines’ thresholds of significance. The new Guidelines are among the most restrictive of California’s 35 air districts, and of any air regulator across the country.
The Guidelines provide GHG thresholds of significance for a variety of land use project types. For instance, single-family housing projects of 56 dwelling units or greater; hotels with 83 hotel rooms or greater; or general office buildings with 53,000 square feet or greater; would all be considered to have a significant impact on GHG emissions under CEQA. That could prevent such projects from receiving categorical exemptions or other forms of streamlined review, and require mitigation measures that may not otherwise be required by the local jurisdiction in which the project is built.
The Guidelines also encourage local governments to adopt a qualified GHG Reduction Strategy, which would substantially lesson the analytical burden imposed by the Guidelines. Once a local government adopts a GHG Reduction Strategy, GHG impacts from projects or plans that are consistent with the Strategy will be considered less than significant. This would streamline CEQA review by: not requiring mitigation beyond that required in the local government’s GHG Reduction Strategy; not requiring an Environmental Impact Report solely for purposes of GHG analysis; and not requiring Statement of Overriding Considerations with regard to GHG analysis.
In San Francisco, the City is already working to have a GHG Reduction Strategy approved by BAAQMD. The GHG Reduction Strategy is likely to include compliance with already established policies of the City, such as the green building ordinance. Thus, for most projects in San Francisco, the new BAAQMD CEQA Guidelines will not result in too much of a change from business as usual, presuming the City is able to obtain approval of its existing policies as a qualified GHG Reduction Strategy. Some San Francisco projects, most likely large projects or those with unusual mixes of uses, may still need to conduct GHG analysis.
For projects not in jurisdictions with detailed climate change policies, such as those in San Francisco, the new BAAQMD GHG Guidelines could prove especially controversial and difficult to address in the near future.
PM 2.5 Thresholds
BAAQMD’s new CEQA Guidelines do not only address GHG emissions, but fully replace the agency’s previous 1999 Guidelines for evaluating air quality. Another notable change, among many in the new Guidelines, is new thresholds for PM 2.5, or extremely fine particulate matter. These regulations set a numerical screening criteria and threshold for PM 2.5. If a project falls above those thresholds, data must be modeled for the project to determine if the project will result in a significant impact and mitigations that may be required.
There is concern among many, however, that these new PM 2.5 regulations are set too low for urban areas, and will discourage in-fill projects and transit-oriented development that the GHG thresholds are meant to promote. Further, some developers and cities have argued that the new PM 2.5 regulations could well add unnecessary and exorbitant costs to urban projects, and perhaps even jeopardize the region’s efforts to comply with SB 375, the state’s 2008 law that incentivizes compact development.
The new BAAQMD CEQA regulations are a significant local, and perhaps even national, model for addressing GHG emissions from land use projects. For projects in cities such as San Francisco, which is likely to offer a qualified GHG Reduction Strategy in the near term, project sponsors will not see a substantial change in environmental review, but rather will be required to follow the City’s climate change initiatives, such as the City’s green building ordinance, as a condition of project approval. On the other hand, projects in jurisdictions without qualified GHG Reduction Strategies, will likely see streamlined forms of CEQA review disappear until those jurisdictions approve such strategies.
Will the increased costs of compliance with the new PM 2.5 regulations stymie urban infill projects? That remains an open question. These regulations will, undoubtedly, create one more hurdle for urban projects at a time when the State is otherwise trying to encourage such projects. Please let us know if you would like a copy of the regulations.
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