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Understanding the different types

Public agencies involved with CEQA fall into several different types, with different roles depending on permitting authority, jurisdiction, and relationship to the project, among other criteria. Read on to learn more.

Lead Agency

A lead agency is the public agency that has the principal responsibility of carrying out or approving a project which may have a significant effect on the environment. (Pub. Res. section 21067). 

The lead agency is tasked with preparing the CEQA documents (e.g. EIR, Negative Declaration) for the project. 

Determining the lead agency

There are criteria for determining which agency will be lead agency (CEQA Guideline section 15051): 

  • When the project will be carried out by a public agency (e.g. a water authority proposing to build a dam), that agency will be the lead agency even if the project is located within the jurisdiction of another agency. 
  • If the project is being carried out by a non-governmental entity or individual (e.g. a developer who wants to build a housing project), the lead agency generally will be the agency with the greatest amount of authority over the project. For instance, agencies with general governmental powers, like cities and counties, tend to be lead agencies, rather than agencies with a more limited scope, like school districts, air pollution control agencies, or water districts. 
  • When more than one agency meets these criteria, the agency that will need to make the initial approvals on the project will normally be designated as the lead agency.
  • Where more than one possible agency could be the lead agency, the agencies will designate the lead agency by agreement or provide for cooperative efforts by contract or joint exercise of powers. 

Key Roles

The lead agency decides what form of environmental review is necessary and is responsible for preparing the CEQA documents (although they commonly contract out to the applicant or an outside consulting firm for preparation of the document). 

The decision-making body of the lead agency (e.g. a city board of supervisors where a city is the lead agency) has the discretion to certify the environmental documents, and ultimately approve the project. Alternatively, the lead agency can decide not to approve the project after reviewing the CEQA documents if it finds deficiencies with the project. For example, if the lead agency finds that the project does not appropriately address and/or mitigate environmental or safety concerns. 

Responsible Agency

A responsible agency has discretionary approval power over a project but does not meet the criteria for acting as Lead Agency as described above. Responsible agencies often have some type of permitting authority over the project, meaning the responsible agency must issue the necessary permits before the project can move forward. For example, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) acts as a responsible agency if a project will harm an endangered species and an incidental take permit (ITP) is required. In this scenario, the lead agency may approve the project, but the project cannot go forward until CDFW can justify issuing an ITP based on the information provided in the CEQA documents. 

Key Roles

A responsible agency must consider the EIR or Negative Declaration prepared by the lead agency and reach its own conclusions on whether and how to approve the project involved. Responsible agencies do not have authority to prepare their own environmental review documents. However, they can come to their own conclusions after reviewing the EIR on whether and how to approve the project. (CEQA Guideline 15096). 

  • Responsibility to consult with the lead agency prior to environmental review and throughout the process to ensure that documents comply with CEQA. 
  • Must point out potential significant impacts when the responsible agency disagrees with the lead agency’s proposal to produce a Negative Declaration. 
  • Can specify environmental information that would be needed to be included in the EIR for the responsible agency to satisfy their statutory responsibilities. 
  • Will consider the lead agency’s environmental review documents but use their own analysis that pertains to their own jurisdiction. 
  • Will comment on the CEQA documents of the lead agency. 
  • All recommendations and comments must pertain to the agency’s scope of expertise or permitting power. Responsible agencies are only responsible for mitigating or avoiding the direct or indirect environmental effects of the parts of the project that the responsible agency decides to carry out, finance, or approve. 
  • Responsible agencies must adopt their own findings using the lead agency’s NDs, MNDs, and EIRs. 
  • Responsible agencies may approve a project as it relates to what they cover in their jurisdiction, but only after the lead agency has taken action. 
  • If the responsible agency finds that the lead agency’s Final EIR or Negative Declaration is sufficient, they will file a Notice of Determination within 5 days. 
  • If the responsible agency determines that the ND or Final EIR is not adequate to meet the responsible agency’s responsibilities, it must take the issue to court within 30 days of the lead agency filing the ND, waive objections to the adequacy of the EIR/ND, prepare a subsequent EIR if permissible under section 15162, or assume the role of lead agency as provided in section 15052(a)(3). 

Trustee Agency

A trustee agency is a public agency that has jurisdiction by law over natural resources held in trust for the people of the State of California that may be impacted by a project (Guideline 15386) 


A trustee agency will act as a responsible agency, if it has discretionary authority over a project and will act as a lead agency for its own projects. Trustee agencies include : 

  • The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Formerly the California Department of Fish and Game) with regard to the fish and wildlife of the state; designated rare or endangered native plants; game refuges, ecological reserves, and other areas administered by the department. 
  • The State Lands Commission with regard to state-owned “sovereign” lands, such as the beds of navigable waters and state school lands. 
  • The State Department of Parks and Recreation with regard to units of the State Park System. 
  • The University of California with regard to sites within the Natural Land and Water Reserves System. 

Key Roles

  • Lead and responsible agencies must consult with trustee agencies when a project may impact those resources or areas within the jurisdiction of the trustee agency. 
  • The trustee agency consults on what documents to prepare, the scope and content of those documents, and comments on the final documents. 
  • Trustee agencies provide the requisite expertise to review and comment upon the environmental documents prepared by the lead agency. 
  • The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is a common trustee agency that CNPS interacts with, as they hold rare or endangered plants in trust for California. When species listed under the California Endangered Species Act are involved in a project, CDFW will act as a responsible agency in charge of issuing incidental take permits. 

Useful definitions

Public Agency – 14 CCR § 15379 – A public agency includes any state agency, board, or commission and any local or regional agency, as defined in these guidelines. It does not include the courts of the state or include agencies of the federal government.  

Local Agency – 14 CCR § 15368 – Any public agency other than a state agency, board, or commission. Local agency includes but is not limited to cities, counties, charter cities and counties, districts, school districts, special districts, redevelopment agencies, local agency formation commissions, and any board, commission, or organizational subdivision of a local agency when so designated by order or resolution of the governing legislative body of the local agency. 

State Agency – 14 CCR § 15383 – A governmental agency in the executive branch of the state government or an entity which operates under the direction and control of an agency in the executive branch of state government and is funded primarily by the state treasury. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and bird’s eye gilia (Gilia tricolor); Image: Brendan Wilce