Use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

While we did not score specifically on this category, the effective use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is essential to a strong preservation program.

A community’s use of CEQA is difficult to quantify yet important to track because of its critical role in how a community approaches preservation. CEQA is a state law passed in 1970 that declares it state policy to “develop and maintain a high-quality environment now and in the future, and to take all action necessary to protect, rehabilitate, and enhance the environmental quality of the state.” This environmental quality includes significant, irreplaceable examples of our cultural heritage.

CEQA is the primary legal tool used to protect historic resources in California. It requires a thorough, public review of the potential environmental impacts of a proposed development project. It also requires government agencies to avoid or minimize these impacts to the extent feasible by examining alternative approaches to the project.

In a number of instances, jurisdictions reviewing proposed development plans have failed to adequately identify potential historic resources as part of a project’s environmental review. As a result, historically significant buildings go unrecognized as such and are demolished without even an evaluation of their potential for adaptive reuse or additional preservation alternatives.

In other examples, jurisdictions merely search through available records to determine if any structures within a proposed project area are designated landmarks on a local, state, or national level.

While a designated landmark or contributing structure in a historic district is properly termed a “historic resource,” historical significance is an inherent quality that is not conferred by landmark status but, rather, recognized by it. Jurisdictions should recognize the existence of “potential historic resources” that have not been officially designated. A structure might not have been evaluated as a historic resource simply because no survey of the area was ever undertaken, or because the structure had not yet reached a particular age when a survey of the area was last conducted.

After consulting existing data, a jurisdiction should retain a qualified historic preservation consultant to assess structures within a project area for their potential eligibility for listing in the California Register—which is the true benchmark for considering a structure as a historic resource for purposes of CEQA.

If substantial and compelling evidence is submitted into the record that a structure is or may qualify as a historic resource (making the fair argument), it does not suffice for the lead agency to opt not to treat the structure as a historic resource in the environmental review simply because the retained consultant’s findings are contradictory. Rather, it is the responsibility of the lead agency to err on the side of caution when substantial evidence supports a “fair argument” that a building qualifies as a historic resource.

For more information, download our Guide to Using CEQA in English or Spanish: