Airport Environmental Program

The following is information for complying with the California environmental quality act in order to obtain or amend an airport or heliport permit or to obtain state funds for an airport project.

Before the California Department of Transportation, the Division of Aeronautics can issue a state airport/heliport permit, amend an existing permit, or release state funding for an airport project, the Division must be assured that the applicant has fully complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The California State Legislature enacted CEQA (Public Resources Code §21000, et seq.) in 1970, one year after Congress enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). CEQA applies to all discretionary activities carried out or approved by California governmental agencies at all levels, including local agencies, regional agencies, and state agencies, boards and commissions.

The intent of CEQA is to provide a thorough evaluation of environmental impacts associated with proposed projects leading to balanced decision-making. Objectives of CEQA are to inform decision makers and the public about the potential significant environmental effect of proposed activities; to identify ways to avoid or reduce environmental damage; to prevent environmental damage by requiring implementation of feasible alternatives or mitigation measures; to disclose to the public reasons for agency approval of projects with significant environmental effects; to foster interagency coordination in the review of projects; and to enhance public participation in the planning process.

CEQA applies when an action is determined to be a “project” (§21065). A project is loosely defined as an activity requiring discretionary approval. A project is an activity directly undertaken by a public agency; an activity undertaken by a person which is supported in whole or in part through contracts, grants, subsidies, loans, or other forms of assistance by one or more public agencies; or an activity that involves the issuance to a person of certain types of a lease, permit, license, certificate, or other entitlement for use by one or more public agencies.

CEQA does not apply when the action is ministerial (airport annual credit grants, lease of facilities for their intended use, etc.).

The “lead agency” under CEQA is the California public agency (typically city or county government, airport proprietor, airport authority) that has the principal responsibility for carrying out or approving a project. The lead agency will decide what type of environmental document must be prepared. The lead agency will first consider whether the project is exempt from CEQA by considering if the project falls within either a categorical or statutory exemption. If the project is not exempt, an environmental impact report (EIR), negative declaration (ND), or mitigated negative declaration (MND) will be required for the project. The lead agency will cause that document to be prepared.


In determining what type of CEQA document must be prepared for a given project the lead agency will first determine if the project is exempt from CEQA. The lead agency will consider the statutory and categorical exemptions as defined in the CEQA statute and Guidelines (California Code of Regulations §15000, et seq.) when making an exemption determination. Categorical exemptions used in CEQA are not the same as categorical exclusions used in NEPA. If the project does meet the criteria of a statutory or categorical exemption the lead agency should complete a Notice of Exemption (NOE) (Guidelines, Appendix E) indicating the appropriate statutory exemption (for example, an ALP may qualify as statutorily exempt under §15262, Feasibility and Planning Studies) or categorical exemption class number §15300, et seq. (for example, Class 3 for a new fence, Class 1 for runway or apron maintenance or repair, or Class 2 for replacement or reconstruction of an existing structure involving negligible or no expansion of capacity). Upon approval of the project based on an exemption the lead agency should file the NOE with the County Clerk and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Filing an NOE begins a 35-day statute of limitation appeal period.

For projects with federal involvement, and also subject to NEPA, please review the environmental section of the CA Airports Best Practices Guide (2008) (PDF).

Key Environmental Links for Aviation Activities

CEQA Statutes and Guidelines

California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook (PDF)

California Environmental Protection Agency