• May a City require CEQA approval for On-Premise Signs?

    There is an express exemption under CEQA for on-premise signs. Public Resources Code Section 21084 includes a list of classes of projects “which have been determined not to have a significant effect on the environment and which shall, therefore, be exempt from the provisions of CEQA.” See 14 Cal Code of Regulations Section 15300, et seq (CEQA Guidelines).

    Pursuant to 14 CCR Section 15311, dealing with Accessory Structures (Class 11), on-premise signs are categorically exempt and a negative declaration should issue. The authority cited for this provision is Public Resource Code sections 21083 and 21087.

    The EIR process requires first the local agency to determine whether the project is exempt. Second, if it is not exempt, an initial study must be conducted to determine whether the project may significantly affect the environment. If there is no significant effect, a “neg dec” is prepared. If there is a significant impact, an EIR is prepared. A project not otherwise exempt may nonetheless be found to be excepted under the “common sense” exception for projects where it is shown that there is no possibility that the activity may have a significant impact on the environment. 14 CCR Section 15061(b)(3).

    Some planners nonetheless call for an EIR to be prepared based on the erroneous conclusion that because Section 15311 refers to “minor structures,” certain on-premise signs, based on their height and size, are not included within the categorical exemption. However, neither State law nor the CEQA guidelines recognize such distinction. Moreover, “minor” within the context of CEQA does not relate so much to the height and size, but to the environmental impact caused by the activity.

    In McQueen v. Mid-Peninsula (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 1136, the court held that the categorical exemptions are to be strictly construed and may not used unless there is substantial evidence of unusual circumstances resulting in significant impacts which threaten the environment. Unless and until a city or county can demonstrate such unusual circumstances or can show substantial harm threatened to the environment, an EIR should not be required.

    In cases where the agency already approved the project, any existing or prior EIR on that project would apply to the sign permit. Moreover, any purported harm to the environment would have already been addressed by the prior land use approval. The regs require the local agency to use previously prepared EIRs, so that a secondary project qualifies for a negative declaration. 14 CCR Section 15006. Regardless of sign’s size, once the land use was allowed originally, a second EIR is not necessary. If a negative declaration issued initially, then that should also apply to a subsequent application for a new sign. If an existing sign is being replaced, there will be no changed environmental impact justifying an EIR.

    The CEQA Guidelines further provide that public agencies “may not require EIRs for projects described in the [exempt] classes,” except: (a) when the project is “in a particularly sensitive environment . . . where the project may impact on an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law …,” (b) when the cumulative impact of successive projects of the same type in the same place over time is significant, or (c) when there is a “reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” CEQA Guidelines, 14 CCR Sections 15300.2, 15300.4. None of these factors usually exist, if ever, with regard to sign installations.

    Courts have held numerous projects to have no significant impact on the environment, including street-widenings, building permits for construction of new houses on existing lots, condemnation of property, and expansion of parking zones, to name just a few. All these projects have in common a pre-existing use or activity. Significantly, no court has held that a sign – of any dimension – poses a significant impact on the environment.

    This is so because an agency must prepare an EIR when it finds substantial evidence that the project may significantly affect the environment. 14 CCR Section 15064. “Environment” is defined as the “physical conditions that exist within the area which will be affected by a proposed project including land, air, water, minerals, flora , fauna, ambient noise, and objects of historic or esthetic significance,” including natural and man-made conditions. 14 CCR Section 15360.

    Unless the proposed sign is being installed in a vernal pool, it’s hard to imagine how construction of a sign, regardless of height, would significantly negatively affect the “environment” factors. Given that the primary land use is well established, the city simply cannot require an EIR without first identifying some potential significant environmental harm caused by the sign’s construction.

    Further, under State law, any fee charged for the issuance of the “neg dec” must not exceed the reasonable value of the service rendered. Gov Code Section 66014. Since on-premise signs are categorically exempt, there should be no fees charged in this regard.


    About Jeffrey Aran

    Sign law expert serving the sign industry and its customers for over 25 years, providing legal and consulting services to sign users, installers and manufacturers. Based in Sacramento, Practice Areas include Zoning; Land Use; Real Estate; Constitutional Law; Employment; & Business. Admitted to the Bar in 1989. Law Offices of Jeffrey L. Aran 1-888-SIGNLAW.

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