Categorical Exemptions are made of a list of project “classes” that typically avoid significant impacts on the environment. Any project that falls within the listed “classes” would then be exempt from further CEQA review. One of the distinctions of Categorical Exemptions is that they are not absolute, unlike Statutory Exemptions. If a Categorical Exemption applies, the project still may be subject to CEQA review because there are exceptions to the listed “classes” of Categorical Exemptions. 

Categorical Exemptions are adopted by the California Secretary for Natural Resources, not the state Legislature and are found in the State CEQA Guidelines. 

CEQA Categorical Exemption Classes 

CEQA includes 33 classes of categorical exemptions, which can be found with examples in the CEQA State Guidelines Sections 15301 through 15333. They include:

  • Existing facilities 
  • Replacement or reconstruction 
  • New construction or conversion of small structures 
  • Minor alterations to land 
  • Minor alterations in land use limitations
  • Information collection 
  • Actions by regulatory agencies for protection of natural resources 
  • Actions by regulatory agencies for protection of the environment 
  • Inspections 
  • Loans 
  • Accessory structures 
  • Surplus government property sales 
  • Acquisition of lands for wildlife conservation purpose  
  • Minor additions to schools 
  • Minor land divisions 
  • Transfer of ownership of land in order to create parks 
  • Open space contracts or easements 
  • Designation of wilderness areas 
  • Annexations of existing facilities and lots for exempt facilities 
  • Changes in organization of local agencies 
  • Enforcement actions by regulatory agencies 
  • Educational or training programs involving no physical changes 
  • Normal operations of facilities for public gatherings 
  • Regulations of working conditions 
  • Transfers of ownership of interest in land to preserve existing natural conditions and historical resources 
  • Acquisition of housing for housing assistance programs 
  • Leasing new facilities 
  • Small hydroelectric projects at existing facilities  
  • Cogeneration projects at existing facilities 
  • Minor actions to prevent, minimize, stabilize, mitigate, or eliminate the release or threat of release of hazardous waste or hazardous substances 
  • Historical resource restoration/rehabilitation 
  • In-fill development projects 
  • Small habitat restoration projects 


The exceptions to Categorical Exemptions are described in Public Resources Code Section 21084(c), (d), and (e) and State CEQA Guidelines Section 15300.2. Before an agency uses a Categorical Exemption, it must first check that there are no exceptions to the exemptions applicable to the project. If an exception exists, then the Categorical Exemption is not valid, and the CEQA process must go forward. 

There are exceptions to Categorical Exemptions where:  

  • The project may impact an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies. 
  • The cumulative impact of successive projects of the same type in the same place, over time is significant. 
  • There is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.  
  • The project may result in damage to scenic resources, including but not limited to, trees, historic buildings, rock outcroppings, or similar resources, within a highway officially designated as a state scenic highway. 
  • The project is located on a listed hazardous waste site. 
  • The project may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource. 

 (CEQA Guidelines 15300.2)