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Standard Environmental Requirements

The Planning Department is currently working to standardize policies and requirements that avoid or lessen common environmental impacts of development projects and create a program to apply those policies and requirements to all applicable projects in San Francisco as Standard Environmental Requirements. This program would protect public health, safety, welfare and the environment while expediting environmental review for development projects, including housing projects.

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The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process identifies any potential adverse environmental effects of proposed actions including development projects, assesses the significance of these adverse environmental effects, and proposes mitigation measures to eliminate or lessen significant effects. Mitigation measures under CEQA are means to prevent, reduce or control adverse environmental effects of a project. Currently, mitigation measures are applied on a project-by-project review basis as part of the environmental review of each project. The Department proposes to streamline this process by requiring standard protection measures or Standard Environmental Requirements for all projects of certain types, based on substantial evidence and best practices in environmental protection. 

The Standard Environmental Requirements Program is designed to achieve the same, or higher, level of environmental protection currently achieved through the environmental review process under CEQA through a consistent, streamlined, and transparent approach that expedites the review of housing and other development projects while continuing to protect the environment, public health, and safety.

The program allows for the Planning Commission to adopt Standard Environmental Requirements that the Planning Department would impose on applicable development projects through the existing permit review and approval process. The Standard Environmental Requirements are organized by environmental topic area (Air Quality, Archeological Resources, etc.) and must be regularly reviewed and presented to the Planning Commission to keep pace with current conditions, technology, and best practices in environmental protection. 

Standard Environmental Requirements would apply consistently to development projects that meet specific applicability criteria directly through the permit review process, rather than as mitigation measures developed through the CEQA process. Environmental review would continue to apply to projects subject to CEQA; however, the review would consider the applicable Standard Environmental Requirements as part of the project analyzed under CEQA, allowing some eligible projects to qualify for a Categorical Exemption that exists today. The Program offers multiple advantages: 

  • Consistent standards: Standard Environmental Requirements would build on the extensive body of knowledge available from existing CEQA mitigation measures and other environmental improvement measures that have proven effective over time. Under the program, these measures would be applied consistently to all applicable projects, including some as-of-right and ministerial approval projects that are not currently subject to these measures. Standard Environmental Requirements would be designed to apply appropriately to projects based on pre-established criteria such as use(s), size, location, and environmental setting, rather than on a project-by-project basis. 
  • Streamlined review: Standard Environmental Requirements would allow environmental review under CEQA to be conducted roughly three months faster on average for projects that would have otherwise required an MND by applying pre-determined requirements to qualifying projects without the need to conduct longer and more intensive environmental evaluation. Under current practice, projects that require an MND in order to apply mitigation measures can typically take a year to prepare. In recent years, the Planning Department has prepared roughly 10 MNDs annually, generally for mid-to large-scale projects, including housing projects. As Standard Environmental Requirements are adopted in various environmental topic areas, projects would be subject to those Requirements. This approach may also reduce development costs in some cases by allowing the protection measures to be included in the project proposal early on. 
  • Transparent requirements: Standard Environmental Requirements would be publicly available and knowable to project applicants, neighbors, community advocates, and interested members of the public in advance of project plan submittals and permit review, similar to the way programmatic mitigation measures are identified in area plan EIRs, such as the Central SoMa Plan EIR. Standard Environmental Requirements would be adopted and amended by the Planning Commission by topic area, allowing these measures to be readily available for public review and revised as needed based on current science and best practices in environmental protection. 
  • Continued environmental protection: Standard Environmental Requirements would achieve the same, or higher, level of environmental protection currently achieved through the environmental review process, by mandating that best practices in environmental protection be applied to projects as a requirement, thereby avoiding potential impacts. Additionally, the program would allow for the same or greater environmental protection than under current processes because the Standard Environmental Requirements would be applied to certain ministerial approval projects, including many affordable housing developments and many smaller scale development projects, that may be approved as-of-right and that are not subject to CEQA.

Program Applicability

The Program may be applied to any development project that requires Planning Department approval. Requirements would be applied to those projects that trigger the specific applicability criteria in each Standard Environmental Requirements. Projects that are not eligible (for example, because of their size or type) would continue to be reviewed under the current environmental review process under CEQA.

Standard Environmental Requirements would generally apply to projects that would have potential environmental impacts that can be avoided or lessened through the application of specific requirements. The program would allow for the same or greater environmental protection than under current processes because the Standard Environmental Requirements would also be applied to certain ministerial approval projects, including many affordable housing developments, and many smaller scale development projects that may be approved as-of-right and that are not subject to CEQA. 

Standard Environmental Requirements - Process for Adoption and Amendments

Standard Environmental Requirements for various environmental topics would be adopted and amended by the Planning Commission. The Planning Department would be required to report at least every five years to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors on the effectiveness of the program and to recommend appropriate updates, modifications, and new requirements based on current science, technology, and best practices. 

For projects that meet the applicability criteria, the Standard Environmental Requirements would be applied as a requirement of approval for the project, similar to how Planning Code and other requirements are routinely applied to development projects. Limited exceptions to the Standard Environmental Requirements would be available where the Environmental Review Officer determines that sufficient evidence is present to demonstrate either that the project would not cause the potential environmental impact that the requirement is designed to address, or that an alternative means of achieving the same level of environmental protection is available. 

Requirements may not be modified or adjusted by the Planning Commission or Planning Department as part of the project approval process. CEQA determinations for projects subject to Standard Environmental Requirements would continue to be appealable to the Board of Supervisors.

Air Quality Standard Requirements

Aerial view of San Francisco's Downtown
Photo: Andrei Stanescu/iStock

The Air Quality Standard Environmental Requirements would address common air quality impacts resulting from development projects and other projects in the city, in order to continue to protect public health and welfare throughout the city, especially in areas that experience high levels of air pollution. Application of the air quality standard environmental requirements would avoid significant air quality impacts from most development projects. Development projects produce air pollutants primarily through combustion emissions generated by vehicles (on-road and off-road vehicles) and equipment (diesel back-up generators), heating, use of consumer products, paving and application of architectural coatings. Construction activities can be a significant source of diesel exhaust emissions. When such emissions are not controlled, they can become a nuisance and public health risk.

A Clean Off-Road Construction Equipment standard environmental requirement would require that projects within areas of elevated air pollution (also known as the Air Pollution Exposure Zone, as defined in Health Code Article 38) use construction equipment that meets the most stringent emissions standards available and submit an emissions minimization plan. A Clean Diesel Generators for Building Operations standard environmental requirement would require that diesel generators similarly meet the most stringent emission standards available. Application of these requirements would result in approximately a 90 percent reduction of harmful diesel exhaust from uncontrolled sources. 

Archeological and Tribal Cultural Resources Standard Requirements

Foundation level of a future skyscraper at a construction site in SoMa district in San Francisco, California
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The Archeological and Tribal Cultural Resources Standard Environmental Requirements would address common cultural resource impacts that may result from development, to continue to protect resources that are vital to the history and culture of the city. Starting more than 7,000 years ago, San Francisco’s residents have left behind a rich and important record of their culture, as archeological deposits and features in the soils beneath the city. Archeological deposits provide significant historical information and, if these resources are not appropriately treated, those stories are lost forever. Application of the archeological and tribal cultural resources standard requirements would ensure that significant cultural resource impacts from soil-disturbing projects are avoided, such that the significant knowledge about the past represented by the resources is preserved. 

The Archeological and Tribal Cultural Resources Standard Environmental Requirements would require that projects with soil disturbance implement measures to avoid or lessen potential impacts to cultural resources. The Accidental Discovery during Construction Standard Environmental Requirement would compel all soil-disturbing projects to include an obligation for project sponsors to report any archeological discoveries during construction. Under an Archeological Monitoring/Archeological Testing/Archeological Data Recovery Standard Environmental Requirement, soil-disturbing projects in archeologically sensitive areas would be subject to archeological and tribal cultural resource review, to determine whether additional protections such as archeological monitoring, testing or data recovery or tribal cultural resource consultation and interpretation should be included in the project for the protection of known or suspected resources. Following standard cultural resource practices currently in place in San Francisco, these standard environmental conditions would require development and implementation of an archeological treatment plan by a qualified archeological consultant under the direction of Planning Department’s archeological staff and generally would include identification, excavation and data recovery, analysis, reporting, curation, and public interpretation of significant cultural resources.

Currently, the Planning Department and other City agencies such as Department of Building Inspection (DBI) and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) enforce and monitor mitigation measures. Standard Environmental Requirements would be monitored through a similar process, including required documentation from project sponsors, plan review, inspection, and periodic reporting when needed. As with mitigation measures, City agencies would track implementation during their review of subsequent permit submittals and would retain the ability to take enforcement action (for example, suspending permits) if the applicable requirements are not being met.

Proposed Ordinance Milestones

  • January 16, 2020: Proposed Enabling Ordinance Initiation at the Planning Commission Hearing
  • February 12, 2020: Public Technical Workshop
  • April 15, 2020: Ordinance Proposed for Adoption by the Historic Preservation Commission; continued to July 15, 2020.
  • July 15, 2020: Ordinance and Cultural Resources Standard Environmental Requirements Proposed for Adoption by the Historic Preservation Commission
  • July 30, 2020: Ordinance and Standard Environmental Requirements Proposed for Adoption by the Planning Commission
  • TBD: Ordinance Proposed for Adoption by the Board of Supervisors; pending adoption by the Planning Commission