Demystifying CEQA's Cumulative Impact Analysis Requirements: Guidance for Defensible EIR Evaluation

By Ms. Nicole Hoeksma Gordon and Mr. Albert Herson, Attorneys, The Sohagi Law Group

Get the latest on issues agencies face when conducting a "cumulative impact analysis" in an Environmental Impact Report in California. The article identifies legal requirements and provides practical strategies for addressing cumulative impacts. It also identifies solutions for avoiding common pitfalls in the EIR's analysis of cumulative impacts. The article appears in the October issue of CALIFORNIA ENVIRONMENTAL LAW REPORTER (Matthew Bender).

"An EIR must analyze cumulative impacts whenever a proposed project's individual impacts have the potential to combine with related impacts from other projects to compound environmental harm," write Nicole Hoeksma Gordon and Mr. Albert Herson. "The Guidelines define cumulative impacts as two or more individual effects which, when considered together, are considerable or compound or increase other environmental impacts. If the proposed project will not make any contribution to the cumulative impact, the EIR need not address it. However, if even a tiny portion of the cumulative impact is caused by the proposed project, the EIR must analyze it. The ultimate goal of this analysis is to determine whether the proposed project's incremental contribution is cumulatively considerable and thus significant. A project's incremental impact may be individually limited but cumulatively considerable when viewed together with the environmental impacts from past, present, and probable future projects."

"Critically, a proposed project's incremental effects may be cumulatively considerable even when its individual effects are limited. In other words, CEQA does not excuse an EIR from evaluating cumulative impacts simply because the project-specific analysis determined its impacts would be less than significant," note the authors. "Similarly, a less than significant impact conclusion at the project-level does not guarantee the project's contribution to a significant cumulative impact will be less than cumulatively considerable."

"Consider, for example, a development project that will have traffic noise impacts below the lead agency's quantitative threshold of significance. However, when the project's noise impacts are combined with the anticipated noise impacts of other past, present and probable future projects in the area, they may cumulatively raise noise levels above the threshold. Whenever this potential exists, the EIR must analyze cumulative impacts," explain the authors. "The EIR preparer should determine, first, whether the combined emissions result in a significant impact, i.e., breach the impact significance threshold, and, if they do, whether the project's individual contribution to the cumulative impact is cumulatively considerable and thus significant."

Nicole Hoeksma Gordon is a partner at The Sohagi Law Group in Los Angeles, California, a firm representing public agencies statewide at the administrative, trial, and appellate level. Her practice focuses on environmental, land use, natural resources, and municipal law issues.

Al Herson is an environmental attorney and planner who is Of Counsel with The Sohagi Law Group, where he represents public clients on complex environmental and land use matters. He is co-author of the CEQA chapters (Chs. 20 through 23) in Manaster & Selmi, California Environmental Law & Land Use Practice (Matthew Bender).

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