In Closed Session

Just say no.

That's a negative declaration, right?

I'm pretty good at negative declarations. Many's the time I've said "I didn't do it," or "It wasn't my fault." (Okay, I believe in taking responsibility, so I don't say it all that often. But you know what I mean.)

Politicians are particularly good at negative declarations. My favorite? "It wouldn't be prudent." Best excuse ever for not doing something.

There is an often-used definition for negative declaration in government circles, too. I believe it is a particularly Californian sort of use, since it is involved with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

CEQA, in case you aren't a government or development geek, was designed to make sure we humans mess with Mother Nature as little as possible. You might be tempted to say that Californians were into the environment before being into the environment was cool. (Not actually. CEQA passed in 1970, and the environmentalist movement was pretty far along by then.)

Back to negative declarations. It has to do with the fact that CEQA requires that there be an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for pretty much any development or project. If dirt is turned, if air is disturbed, plan on conducting an EIR before you get approval to start work.

Developers and government types try to avoid doing an EIR when possible. That's not because developers and government types are anti-environment — they aren't (at least most of them). It's just that EIRs are both costly and time consuming.

It usually takes experts and consultants to get an EIR done. An entire industry has grown up around the California EIR. Biologists, geologists, even paleontologists can make a decent living working on EIRs.

A year is not an uncommon length of time to do an EIR. (I think that was a double negative declaration, but you know what I mean.) EIRs for big projects can take two years or more.

Are you beginning to see how a negative declaration might be a good thing, at least from the developer's perspective?

Our city planners, bless their souls, operate in an abundance of caution when it comes to CEQA and EIRs. Better to deal with it early, they say, than to have to go back and do one later, after someone files an appeal. The wheels of government turn exceedingly slowly, but it gets worse when appeals show that not every T was crossed and every I has its very own dot.

If you can get a negative declaration approved saying that an EIR isn't necessary for a particular project, things move much more quickly. So when it doubt whether an EIR is required, go out and get yourself a negative declaration.

Now that is a government thing too, and you can't just opine that there aren't going to be any environmental impacts. So a negative dec (I love government jargon) requires a study of its own. It's not nearly as detailed, but it shows that, say, regulations governing air bnbs in the city aren't going to be a big impact on the environment (sound concerns can be dealt with regulations).

There's also something known as a mitigated negative declaration. Mitigated means that an action can be taken to mitigate — ease the impact — any environmental consequences. Mitigation measures area almost always part of EIRs. It's a developer's way of saying, "I'll make sure it won't be so bad."

Approving a mitigated negative declaration would avoid a year-long delay in approving, say, constructing industrial buildings, while showing how air quality issues or storm runoff will be handled.

While negative declarations can be useful, they're still a legal environmental finding, and as such are subject to hearings, comments, appeals, and things of that sort. So public notice is required, and Planning Commission approval necessary before things move on to the City Council.

So last week, the Planning Commission's entire agenda was approval of negative declarations. First proposed rules about the design drive-throughs got its negative dec, then industrial buildings on San Francisco Avenue received approval for a mitigated negative declaration.

Oh, and there's a current review period about a negative declaration for proposed citywide regulations of short-term rentals — air bnbs. People and organizations have until Oct. 15 to review those rules and make comments before the Planning Commission gets its hands on it.

Want to check it out? It can be found at

That's a fact, not a negative declaration.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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