Cover the basics 

It can be easy to forget the little things, like grammar and language, when dealing with such a complex process. Here’s a list of things to keep in mind as you write the letter, and check for once you have finished. 

  • ProofreadCheck for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and anything else you may have missed. 
  • ToneYour letter should be professional, respectful, and non-accusatory. Always rely onthe facts of the argument. Remember that your goal is to be helpful on behalf of native plants and habitats. The letter should stay positive, thanking the agency for the opportunity to comment and working towards improving the project. 
  • LanguageUse clear, simple language. Imagine that the person reading this will read it at 10 pm before bed. Be concise and clear so that they can understand your point without exerting too much energy. 
  • Plant names and other scientific informationIf you are commenting on behalf of CNPS, always make sure you are using the correct, up-to-date names and naming conventions for native plants. Please use the common name first with the scientific name in parentheses and italics in the first use, and then use only the common name. 

Know the stage of the EIR 

The objectives of a comment letter may change slightly depending on the current stage of the EIR pathway. The overall goals of commenting remain the same, but the content and tone should be tailored to each stage as described below.   

  • Notice of Preparation of EIR (Scoping Comments) Comments at this stage will be more general. These comments are intended to guide the lead agency into producing the best possible EIR. The letter should offer recommendations to the lead agency on what they should analyze in the forthcoming EIR. The comments should focus on the plants and vegetation communities present on the project site and the potential threats a project might pose to those resources, so that the agency is informed of those potential impacts so that they can adequately analyze and assess them. This may also be an appropriate time to urge the lead agency to review local land use plans, habitat conservation plans, and other local laws to determine if the proposed project is compatible or consistent with local law and policy. 
  • Draft Environmental Impact ReportThe Draft EIR will have the most comprehensive comment letters. The comments will address all issues and gaps of the project’s review.  These comments “focus on the sufficiency of the document in identifying and analyzing the possible impacts on the environment and ways in which the significant effects of the project might be avoided or mitigated.” (CEQA § 15204 (a)) 
  • Final Environmental Impact ReportComments can be submitted up until the Final EIR is certified, when the agency officially approves the project. There is not a formal review period once the Final EIR is released, but you can still submit comments at this time. These comments can address how the agency has not adequately responded to comments or made the necessary revisions. While Final EIR comments will likely not be addressed by the agency,  they do preserve your standing on the project. 

Use the law  

Citing the law can strengthen your comment letter, so brush up on the legal principles of CEQA before your write. The CEQA Statute and Guidelines handbook also includes case law relevant to many sections of CEQA. Information on additional state laws protecting native plants can be found on the CDFW California Laws Protecting Native Plants page.  Remember, comment letters should address the sufficiency of the documents in identifying and analyzing the possible impacts on the environment and ways in which the significant effects of the project might be avoided or mitigated (CEQA § 15204(a)). 

Legal Refreshers on the EIR:

  • EIRs are meant to be informational documents, providing decisionmakers with a full picture of the project.  
  • Agencies are supposed to consider evidence in making their decisions, and the agency’s conclusions should be based on substantial evidence. 
  • The EIR must show the agency’s analytical route from evidence to action. 
  • The Agency must mitigate significant impacts to be “less than significant,” if feasible. 
  • The adequacy of the EIR is determined “in terms of what is reasonably feasible” for the lead agency (CEQA § 15204 (a)). This means that they are not required to try every possible test and every possible method of mitigation, just what is reasonably feasible for them. 

Use these facts as they come up in your comment letter. If the agency does not reveal their analytical route to action, call this out. If they failed to consider evidence in making their decision, let them know in the comment letter. Brush up on other requirements of CEQA to make sure you know what is required and are able to accurately address agency shortcomings in meeting those requirements. See the CEQA Legal Principles for more information on general CEQA requirements. 

Use science 

Comments are most effective when they are explained, especially when using data or references offering facts, expert opinions, and reasonable assumptions based on facts. This should be done when countering the agency’s conclusions, when suggesting your own conclusions, and when making recommendations. 

Evidence and authoritative backing make your comment letter stronger, especially when you are asserting claims that counter the agency’s conclusions and bringing up evidence they failed to consider. However, you should not feel like you are writing for a science journal or make this information the focus of your letter.

Make concrete suggestions 

Being solution-oriented helps strenghten and clarify a comment letter. The CEQA guidelines state that comment letters are most helpful when they “suggest additional specific alternatives or mitigation measures” to avoid or mitigate the significant environmental effects (CEQA § 15204(a)).  Clear suggestions can make it easier for the lead agency to follow your recommendations. Keep in mind, however, that CEQA does not require a lead agency to conduct every test or perform all recommended actions.  

Include positive feedback 

Most of the comment letter will be identifying the parts that you disagree with and recommendations for improving those parts, but it’s important to let the agency know what areas of the documents you support. Positive feedback helps convey that you are not attacking the project but working to improve it. This approach also becomes important for the future, as you may comment on a project by the same agency with the same contact person somewhere down the line. Creating and maintaining a positive, constructive relationship with them can be beneficial. 

Use the comment letter database 

Reference the searchable archive of CNPS comment letters, where you can search by region, conservation issue, plant type, and more. Reviewing past comment letters can help you get started in writing yours, especially if you are not sure where to begin. These examples may also provide you with text that you can directly use, so you aren’t starting from scratch. For example, if you are working on a project that will build directly on pristine desert land, there are likely comment letters that you can borrow from that describe the importance of desert habitat. 

Commenting with CNPS 

If you are commenting on behalf of CNPS, make sure you are in communication with your chapter’s conservation chair throughout the process. This is good to make sure work is not duplicated and also to make sure that you have the support you need. Contact the Conservation Program if you have questions or need assistance.  

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