With the increased interest in green building and sustainable development, any developer looking to get a significant project approved these days must be prepared to answer questions about doing an environmental impact assessment, especially if it's brought up by the community.
Generally, a private developer will be required to conduct a Phase 1 environmental site assessment (ESA). This is different from an environmental assessment of development outlined in a plan or policy. The intention of both, however, is to identify and evaluate potential consequences for the existing environment of the community or area prior to beginning any development.
While only federal agencies and those seeking to develop using federal resources must complete an environmental assessment or official "environmental impact statement" before developing, which is part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), most commercial developments must do a Phase 1 ESA as part of the due diligence process.
Here, we discuss what an environmental assessment is and isn't and whether you need one.
What is an environmental assessment?
An environmental assessment is intended to be a quick, proactive analysis of what consequences a plan or project may have on the environment in the area where it's being proposed. It is supposed to preface and possibly lead into a more in-depth environmental impact assessment; only if the initial environmental assessment is determined to have negative effects would the more in-depth study be necessary.
Commonly confused terms
When trying to figure out as a developer/investor/builder what you'll need to get, it's important to know the difference. Here's a look at some terms and an explanation of each.
Environmental assessment vs. environmental impact assessment
An environmental assessment considers the broader effects of a plan, a policy, or project(s). It's quick and concise. On the other hand, an environmental impact assessment (or environmental site assessment) specifically relates to a project, and it takes a deep dive. So, if a broader environmental assessment -- for example, to develop a large swath of land into a planned community -- has returned a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), the in-depth study would not be necessary.
For example, if developers put in a bid to build townhomes on a few parcels of that land, they wouldn't have to do an environmental impact assessment to further investigate. The entire plan has been determined to have no significant impact.
Environmental impact assessment vs. environmental site assessment
While the former is generally only required for projects developing on public lands, the latter is for private commercial developments.
Environmental assessments and environmental impact assessments fall under the oversight of NEPA. Only those proposed projects situated on certain public lands would need an EIA.
Environmental impact assessment vs. strategic environmental assessment
The environmental assessment process is driven by governmental/NEPA guidelines. Projects that might require it would be, for example, wastewater treatment plants or developments on former mining lands. Environmental site assessments are similarly driven by public policy, though applied to private commercial developments.
The strategic environmental assessment is more of an opt-in due diligence process whereby private developers, investors, and companies can assess proposed projects against benchmarks of environmental, community, and public health parameters. Entities that are interested in sustainable, responsible development -- either from a good-citizen standpoint or because they're going after incentives -- gravitate toward organizations such as the volunteer, member-guided IAIA (International Association for Impact Assessment) for education, third-party assessment, and to become part of the sustainable community.