- Vol 1: General - Topics Chapters Overview
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- 2-State Requirements
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- 4-Environmental Considerations During Transportation Planning
- 5-Preliminary Scoping
- 6-Formal Scoping
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- 15-Waters of the U.S. and the State
- 18-Coastal Zone
- 19-Wild and Scenic Rivers
- 20-Section 4(f) Resources and Related Requirements Chapter 21 (Section 6(f) has been merged with Chapter 20. Topics - Community Impacts
- 22-Land Use
- 24-Community Impacts
- 25-Environmental Justice
- 26-Traffic (On Hold)
- 28-Cultural Resources Chapter 29 has been merged with Chapter 28 which was renamed to Cultural Resources.
- 35-Initial Study/ Neg Dec
- 37-Preparing and Processing Joint NEPA/CEQA Documentation
- 38-NEPA Assignment
- 39-Incorporating Environmental Commitments into Design
- Vol 2: Cultural
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- Vol 4: Community
- Emergency Projects Environmental Process and Requirements
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Last Updated: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 11:50 AM
CHAPTER 27: VISUAL & AESTHETICS REVIEW
- What Does this Topic Include?
- Visual Study Decision Tree
- Laws, Regulations, and Guidance
- Further Reference
- Early Coordination
- State Scenic Highway Program
- Cumulative Impacts
- Construction Impacts
- Timing the Studies with the Environmental Process
- Information Needed for Project Delivery
- Activities That May Occur During the Project Design Phase
- Activities That May Occur During Construction Phase
- Activities That May Occur During Maintenance
This chapter provides an overview of the approach the Department uses to identify visual and aesthetic issues that may result from transportation projects. Information is provided to give the reader a basic understanding of the Visual Impact Assessment and Scenic Resource Evaluation. These studies are used to predict the degree and type of impact proposed projects will have on the “visual” environment.
Visual impacts are mentioned in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations to implement NEPA under the heading of aesthetics. These regulations identify aesthetics as one of the elements or factors in the human environment that must be considered in determining the effects of a project. Further, Title 23, USC 109(h) cites “aesthetic values” as a matter that must be fully considered in developing a project. CEQA also mentions aesthetics. Aesthetics, as used in this context relate to the visual impacts of a project.
- SER - EH Vol 1 - Chapter 2 - State Requirements
- CEQA Guidelines
- Appendix G
- Article 19. Categorical Exemptions
- Section 15304. Minor Alterations to Land
- Section 15300.2. (d) Exceptions
- CEQA Statutes
- Section 21084. (b) – Lists of Exempt Classes of Projects Damaging Scenic Resources
- Streets and Highways Code, Sections 260 – 263 (State Scenic Highways)
The following list includes both guidance for which there are website postings (hotlinks indicated) and guidance which was formerly posted on FHWA and other websites, but that is currently unavailable. Some additional references are included in the FHWA Environmental Guidebook
- Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects, Publication Number FHWA-HI-88-054
- FHWA Memorandum to Regions, “Esthetics and Visual Quality Guidance Information” (August 1986)
- Environmental Impact Statement, Visual Impact Discussion, FHWA (undated)
- Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects, FHWA Office of Environmental Policy, Publication Number: FHWA-HI-88-054 (March 1981) (link on SER website)
- Noise Barrier Design Handbook - Noise Barrier Aesthetics
- A Guide to Visual Quality in Noise Barrier Design, Aesthetics in the Design Process, Publication Number: FHWA –RD-IMP-77-12 (December 1976)
- Flexibility in Highway Design, Publication Number: FHWA-PD-97-062
- Case Studies in Visual Quality, FHWA (August 1982)
- Esthetics and Visual Resource Management of Highways: Seminar Notes, (1979-1980)
Available from California Department of Transportation:
- Highway Design Manual, Chapter 100, Topic 109 – Scenic Values in Planning and Design
- The California Scenic Highway System
- Officially Designated Scenic Highways
- Director's Policy 22, Context Sensitive Solutions
- Deputy Directive 31, Protection of Scenic Corridors
- Deputy Directive 64 (DD-64) Complete Streets - Integrating the Transportation System
- Caltrans Director's Policy (DP-22): Contex Sensitive Solutions
- Context Sensitive Solutions Implementation Plan Rick Knapp (October 3, 2002)
- Deputy Directive 94 (DD-94) Scenic Highway Program
Conducting Scenic Resource Evaluations and Visual Impact Assessments on large projects requires early coordination with the Project Development Team (PDT) including representatives from the affected community. Community participation such as public meetings and surveys are useful tools in predicting viewer response to proposed changes in the visual environment. Since budget and time constraints often preclude the use of these methods, it is important to conduct research by examining public documents such as city general plans and meeting with local planning staff to discover community values and goals. This coordination should be underway at the project initiation phase in the event that potential project impacts would require the PDT to consider design alternatives or mitigation measures that would affect project funding levels. It is also important to discuss these issues with the appropriate Federal Highway Administration representative and other agencies, such as the Coastal Commission, that will have an interest and stake in the outcome. Early coordination between the Department, the community, and other agency stakeholders facilitates timely project development.
The intent of the State Scenic Highway Program is to protect and enhance California's natural scenic beauty. The Department provides city and county governments the opportunity to nominate eligible scenic highways and adopt corridor protection programs to obtain official scenic highway status. Corridor protection programs contain land use elements that support scenic preservation along the route. If the proposed project is within an officially designated scenic highway, the environmental document must discuss whether the project has the potential to affect the scenic highway and if so, whether the project is consistent with the protection program. If a highway is listed as eligible for official designation, it is also part of the Scenic Highway System and care must be taken to preserve its eligible status. For additional information regarding scenic highways, please see the Department’s Scenic Highway website.
Whether sponsored by the Department or a local agency, all proposed projects on the State Highway System (SHS) must meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In addition, most of these projects, as well as federal-aid projects off the State Highway System, will also need to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if there is federal involvement (funding, approval, or property).
For visual and aesthetics review, compliance with
CEQA requires at minimum that a Scenic Resource Evaluation be conducted.
A Visual Impact Assessment is prepared to comply with the requirements
of NEPA. In practice, these CEQA and NEPA requirements are often combined
into one technical report.
All project sites must be reviewed for scenic resources. The goal is to examine the project limits, determine if scenic resources exist within those limits, and whether they will be impacted by the proposal. It is important that the Scenic Resource Evaluation (SRE) be based on an evaluation of the public's anticipated perception of the existing resource and its visual setting. To encourage reasonable objectivity by trained and experienced personnel, the SRE must be performed by a Landscape Architect. The Landscape Architect must consider all available information and opinions including that of local communities, planning agencies and others. The district’s Planning and Environmental units should be consulted to assure that all appropriate input is considered.
The Scenic Resource Evaluation considers the site-specific visual and historic context, anticipated sensitivity of identified viewers, and the extent of visibility.
As part of the Scenic Resource Evaluation, the District Landscape Architect performs three primary actions:
- Research. An understanding is developed of the proposed project, community values expressed in applicable planning documents, and of relevant project history.
- Field Review. Investigation of the project setting and an inventory of existing visual features as well as proposed project element locations, viewer groups and probable affects.
- Synthesis. The research and field data is analyzed in determining whether a scenic resource exists. The analysis identifies the setting, whether or not a scenic resource is present, why it qualifies as a scenic resource, and how the proposed project will potentially affect the scenic resource. The Scenic Resource Evaluation is provided in a technical report including photographs and graphic information necessary to substantiate the findings.
A Scenic Resource Evaluation (SRE) is also used for determining whether a proposed project is categorically exempt. CEQA statutes Section 21084(b) and CEQA Guidelines Section 15300.2(d)] state that no project damaging “scenic resources, including but not limited to trees, historic buildings, rock outcropping, or similar resources, within a highway designated as an official state scenic highway” is categorically exempt. Section 15304 of the CEQA Guidelines permits, as a categorical exemption, the minor alteration of land or vegetation that does not involve removal of mature, scenic trees. Following completion of the SRE, environmental staff in coordination with the Project Development Team will determine whether a Categorical Exemption (CE) is still appropriate for the project. Because of the implications to the categorical exemption determination, it is necessary that the findings of the Landscape Architect be used in documenting the proposed project ’s potential effect on identified scenic resources.
While there is no comprehensive list of specific features that automatically qualify as scenic resources, certain characteristics can be identified which contribute to the determination of a scenic resource. Following is a partial list of visual qualities and conditions which, if present, may indicate the presence of a scenic resource:
- A tree that displays outstanding features of form or age;
- A landmark tree or a group of distinctive trees accented in a setting as a focus of attention;
- An unusual planting that has historical value;
- A unique, massive rock formation;
- An historic building that is a rare example of its period, style, or design, or which has special architectural features and details of importance(A historic building, however, should be evaluated by a staff Architectural Historian as part of the historic resources studies);
- A feature specifically identified in applicable planning documents as having special scenic value;
- A unique focus or a feature integrated with its surroundings or overlapping other scenic elements to form a panorama;
- An exceptional example of proportion, balance, rhythm, and variety - all of these are amenable attractions of a visual scene.
- A vegetative or structural feature that has local, regional, or statewide importance.
Conversely, examples of features that lack the typical characteristics of a Scenic Resource include:
- Trees that are commonplace and repetitious, occurring frequently along a roadway;
- The fringe trees of a forest;
- Rock outcroppings that are generally characterized by little or no variety and possessing no uniqueness of form or aesthetic merit;
- Trees, rock outcroppings or buildings that are incompatible with their surroundings.
A Visual Impact Assessment (VIA) should be considered for every project that has the potential to change the “visual” environment. The level of assessment for the VIA can range from “no formal analysis” to a “complex analysis” and is determined by many factors such as: numbers of viewer groups affected; existence of scenic resources; degree and totality of the proposed changes in the visual environment; local concerns or project controversy; and cumulative impacts along the transportation corridor.
In order to establish the need and level of study for a VIA, a preliminary evaluation is performed to determine if the project will cause any physical changes to the environment. Projects that replace or rehabilitate existing facilities (e.g., pavement overlay, striping, sign replacement), and do not constitute a change in character to those facilities, will not require a formal analysis. This preliminary evaluation includes activities such as conducting a site visit to inventory the scenic resources of the project site, estimating potential changes to that character, and identifying viewer groups and public concerns or opposition to the proposal.
The Department conducts visual studies using the FHWA method as a guide. This process is described in the FHWA publication entitled “Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects”. Within the framework of this approach, the choice of specific assessment techniques should be tailored to the project in terms of appropriate detail and level of effort. As a component of this method, the Department considers regulatory environment and cumulative impacts as important issues when evaluating a project’s visual impacts. Projects involving other agencies may need to include additional methodologies for assessing impacts.
Scoping is referenced in the FHWA publication “Visual Impact Assessment of Highway Projects” in the following manner: “there shall be an early and open process for determining the scope of issues to be addressed and for identifying the significant issues related to a proposed action.” Scoping on major projects that may have significant impacts can serve to alert the Project Development Team that serious impacts or controversy may occur. This in turn helps to identify possible avoidance alternatives, and/or substantial mitigation costs for the Project Study Report. Scoping is also used to identify the appropriate level of assessment to be performed.
A guide that should be used to determine the level of detail required for performing a Visual Impact Assessment is available here.
An outline that follows the FHWA method for Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects (see Guidance section above), and represents an appropriate level of study for a large and/or complex project is available here. It is to be used as a guide for applying the FHWA methodology and can be modified to fit a particular project.
Scenic Resource Evaluations and Visual Impact Assessments are performed under the direction of licensed Landscape Architects. Landscape Architects receive formal training in the area of visual resource management with a curriculum that emphasizes environmental design and context sensitive solutions. Landscape Architects also understand the constructability and maintenance issues when recommending specific mitigation measures
For projects requiring both state and federal environmental approval the Landscape Architect submits the completed Scenic Resource Evaluation /Visual Impact Assessment (SRE/VIA) to the Environmental Coordinator (or for local projects the preparer of the environmental document). The document writer incorporates the findings and recommended mitigation measures identified in the SRE/VIA and provides a copy to the Landscape Architect for review. Mitigation measures can involve avoiding, minimizing, or compensating for proposed project impacts. The completed SRE/VIA serves as a supporting technical study and is referenced in the environmental document. Upon receipt of this information the environmental staff in coordination with the Project Development Team will determine which level of environmental document is appropriate for the project.
For local assistance projects (federal aid projects off the State Highway System), the Preliminary Environmental Studies (PES) form is used to indicate whether a detailed technical report will be required for visual and aesthetic resources. Additional information on local assistance procedures is contained in the Local Assistance Procedures Manual.
A cumulative effect is defined in the NEPA Regulations as "the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions”. Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor yet collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time. CEQA has similar language and requirements.
While removing trees or excavating slopes may not be considered major impacts on an individual project, similar impacts on past, or future projects within a highway corridor can result in a cumulative impact when considering the combined result.
Because different agencies have differing approaches to cumulative impacts, it is recommended that interagency coordination begin early in project development. Also refer to the Department's Guidance for Preparers of Cumulative Impact Analysis.
In addition to impacts that will affect the visual environment as a result of the proposed project, it is important to consider the impacts of the contractors’ operations. Scenic resources identified should be protected at all stages of the project’s construction. Disposal sites, construction signs, material storage, and other items of work necessary for construction that will create a visual impact should be identified. Mitigation for construction impacts should be considered, as with other project impacts, and appropriately incorporated into the project. This can be particularly important when reviewing projects along scenic highways.
Early involvement by the Landscape Architect is crucial to performing a meaningful visual study of a project. By initiating visual studies during the Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) phase of the project, potential impacts can be identified, project alternatives examined, and mitigation proposed. These factors need consideration to accurately develop initial project costs prior to programming. Also, early involvement promotes discussions between the Project Development Team and Landscape Architect in order to identify and incorporate design features that address potential visual impacts, avoidance alternatives, and mitigation.
Depending on the complexity of the impact assessment, it may take from a few days to several months to complete the appropriate studies. Continuous involvement by the Landscape Architect ensures that any design changes will reflect appropriate visual consideration.
The existing visual environment should be documented in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and serve as a building block in subsequent decision making.
Approval of the RTP requires preparation of a CEQA environmental document, normally a program or master EIR. Caltrans encourages the MPO/RTPAs to identify scenic routes, visual landmarks or vistas of regional importance, as seen from the project corridor in the environmental document for the plan.
A preliminary SRE/VIA should be included in the Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) prepared as part of the Project Initiation Document (PID).
The Guidelines for the “Preparation of Project Study Reports (PSRs)” dated November 3, 1999 stipulate that PSRs and project study report equivalents contain an “inventory of environmental resources, identification of potential environmental issues and anticipated environmental processing type. Potential mitigation requirements and associated costs should also be identified.” In situations where avoidance of impacts or mitigation requires purchasing of right-of-way, costs can be dramatically affected.
For projects on the State Highway System, the following level of information is recommended to fulfill the requirements of the guidelines:
- Verification of information from the RTP stage;
- Identification of possible scenic resources and the project’s potential visual impact(s);
- Identification of possible mitigation measures and preliminary costs to be included in the PSR estimate (e.g., special grading requirements, architectural features on bridges and walls, urban street amenities, landscape treatment, right-of way requirements).
- Identification of Officially Designated State Scenic Highways in the project area.
Public input is solicited during this phase to address local concerns and integrate appropriate design features by using a ‘context sensitive solutions’ approach (see Director's Policy 22). The process of determining final mitigation involves ongoing discussions between the Project Development Team and public through the design phase
For projects off the State Highway System, complete the Preliminary Environmental Study (PES) form. The information required for the PES satisfies the environmental requirement for the PSR equivalent. For Federally funded projects, a Visual Impact Assessment must be performed in accordance with this chapter.
The SRE/VIA is prepared during this stage of the project. Impact avoidance measures and mitigation strategies are developed in coordination with the Project Development Team. Mitigation costs for visual impacts are also refined in the estimate. See “Activities That May Occur During the Project Design Phase” below for split funding policy regarding landscape mitigation.
The SRE/VIA is used to prepare the visual section of the Draft Environmental Document or used as a supporting technical study for a Categorical Exemption/Categorical Exclusion, as appropriate.
The SRE/VIA is revised during this stage in response to public comment on the Draft Environmental Document, and final mitigation requirements are established. This information must be presented in the Final Environmental Document and is used to develop the Environmental Commitments Record, as required.
Mitigation costs for visual impacts should be refined in the Project Report to fulfill the requirements of the Environmental Commitments Record.
During project design the Landscape Architect coordinates with the Project Development Team to ensure aesthetic treatments and mitigation measures are incorporated into the plans, specifications, and estimate. This can include making final decisions on:
- type, treatment, and color for barriers and walls;
- architectural styles for bridge structures and miscellaneous hardware;
- contour grading plans that incorporate slope rounding;
- landscape treatment (e.g., planting for screening, revegetation)
If the estimated cost of planting and irrigation is less than $200,000, it may be included with the parent roadway construction project, and shall include no more than one year of plant establishment. When planting and irrigation costs are equal to or more than $200,000 this work shall be accomplished by separate contract, except where it is legally required to be included with the roadway contract, and include three year plant establishment periods. (For full text see Separate Contract Policy for Highway Planting Projects)
The project will be reevaluated for visual impacts and subsequent mitigation if any design changes occur during this phase.
This phase of the project requires that the Landscape Architect be available to assist the Resident Engineer in ensuring that mitigation measures are constructed as originally intended. Coordination during the pre-construction meeting with the Resident Engineer and Contractor provides the Landscape Architect an opportunity to establish a schedule for field reviews at critical milestones. This is especially important with design features that include color and texture. In addition, coordination with the Environmental Unit is important to ensure that mitigation requirements in the Environmental Commitments Records are implemented. Construction contract change orders may alter visual mitigation features or cause new visual impacts. The project may need to be reevaluated if these types of events occur.
The Landscape Architect should meet with the Resident Engineer and Maintenance representative, near the completion of construction, to ensure a smooth transition of responsibilities. Important information such as design intent, mitigation viability goals, permit commitments, monitoring, etc. is discussed during this meeting.
Emergency work on an officially designated State Scenic Highway undertaken to maintain, repair, or restore an existing highway that has been damaged as a result of fire, flood, storm, earthquake, land subsistence, gradual movement, or landslide, is not statutorily exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). However, it may qualify for a categorical exemption. Please see Question 3 of the Emergency Projects: Environmental Process and Requirements Guidance for additional details.