What are CEQA exemptions?

CEQA applies to all discretionary projects taken on by government agencies, but some projects are exempt from CEQA review. CEQA exemptions exist for several reasons. Projects may be exempt because they do not typically have environmental impacts or because their benefits outweigh their impacts, as determined by the California legislature or the California Secretary of Natural Resources.  

 CEQA exemptions are intended to cut down the time and costs of review for exempted projects. However, projects exempt from CEQA are not necessarily exempt from other laws that require review. The three main types of CEQA exemptions are listed below. Click on the links to learn more. There are also other exemptions that exist outside of the three main categories, found within various laws and statutes.

Types of exemptions

Select from the options below to learn why and how agencies commonly exempt projects.

Statutory Exemptions

These include classes of projects and individually defined projects and are absolute in their exemptions.

Lupines (lupinus spp.); Image: Brendan Wilce

Categorical Exemptions

These include classes of projects and individually defined projects and are subject to various exceptions.

“Common Sense” and Others

For the “Common Sense” exemption to be applied, the Lead Agency must back up its determination with factual evidence. 

What to do when a project is exempt

When an agency has determined that the project is exempt, the CEQA requirements are fulfilled. There is no public review period, no requirement for public notice, and no requirement for the agency to make findings. This limits public engagement, but there are still actions you can take!

  • Comment and participate in any public review made possible. 
  • Watch for Notices of Exemption. Some agencies have internal requirements to post Notices of Exemption and will even receive public comment. If the agency has an avenue for public review, through hearings or receiving comment, this should be the first step taken to challenge a CEQA exemption. 
  • Call or write public officials about your concerns.
  • Use your connections. If you have relationships or contacts with city or county staff, members of a Board of Supervisors, or other local officials, contacting them to inform them about your concerns could help to encourage the agency to take a second look at the project.  
  •  Legally challenge the exemption. If other forms of advocacy are not successful, a legal challenge may be the only option available to challenge a CEQA exemption. The challenge must present evidence that the Lead Agency cannot support its determination that a categorical exemption applies. If a court determines that the exemption was incorrectly used, the Lead Agency is required to rescind its project approvals and continue with usual CEQA review.