One of the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a Biological Site Assessment (BSA). This is intended to ensure that the project does not have significant impacts on sensitive biological resources.
When is a BSA Required?
A BSA is typically required when the project is located within or adjacent to an area that might contain sensitive biological resources. These might include rare plants or animals, fragile biological communities, significant natural habitats, etc.
The purpose is to document the likely biological impact of the project not to determine what mitigations should be done, although the BSA will be included with the EIR. Mitigation proposals are also included in the EIR, separate from the BSA.
For example, if a project involves draining part of a wetland, it will require a BSA. So will one which might alter the course of a stream. The BSA will determine whether fragile or protected biological resources will be affected.
Some counties may have designated areas, such as wildlife reserves, where BSAs are always required for adjacent development.
What does a BSA Include?
A BSA has to include specific information. There is no formal outline, although this site includes a sample outline which might be helpful. It needs to include:
- What the proposed development is.
- Where it is.
- What species or critical habitat may be present.
- What effects each part of the development might have on those species or habitats.
- An analysis of cumulative and future effects.
- A map of water, ecological buffers, etc.
Generally, the BSA starts by reviewing local protection policies, searching records to establish local conditions, reviewing existing surveys, etc. It also includes a site survey that maps streams, wetland areas, and ecological buffers.
Maps of sensitive areas should be integrated into the site plans so that the site can work around them.
Ultimately, the BSA will either conclude that the project will not result in significant adverse impacts or that it could. Again, no mitigation is recommended, because the purpose of the BSA is to determine whether further environmental review is needed.
In some cases, the BSA may show the potential for positive impacts to biological resources from the intended project, which also requires further review, to confirm these and to establish how they can best be leveraged. Discountable effects are those highly unlikely to happen, and insignificant effects are not measurable or cannot be evaluated.
It’s relatively rare for a “no effect” analysis to come back because most actions will have some impact on the surrounding habitat. Typically, building on sites unlikely to affect biological resources does not trigger a BSA in the first place.
How Does This Impact Contractors?
A BSA may have to be done for any project that requires state permits or funding, which can cover a lot of projects. The need for a BSA is determined during a preliminary survey. It’s a good idea to do this survey before you purchase the land, ensuring that the site is suitable for the project without spending money.
Having to do a BSA does not necessarily make for a “deal killer.” It may, however, mean that site plans have to be adjusted to mitigate impacts. In some cases, it can be cheaper to look for another site. A BSA will involve project delays and almost certainly some level of mitigation.
Who Prepares a BSA?
Typically, a BSA is prepared by agency staff and/or outside contractors, potentially including biologists qualified to perform the survey. If you need a BSA, you would hire a consultant, and the agency may be able to recommend you one. Or your environmental consultant can take care of it. However, in many cases, trained biologists are not brought in until the BSA has concluded there is a potential for impact. At this point, it’s typical to do a more detailed and intensive biological study to establish how best to reduce the impacts.
These are generally done by experienced contractors and include biologists and ecologists who can better determine the exact impact of the planned development on species and habitats.
When is Formal Consultation Required?
If the project has been determined to adversely affect either a listed species or a designated critical habitat, then formal consultation is required. This is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, and also affects projects covered by NEPA. Formal consultation is performed to help the agency work out the best mitigation measures to preserve listed species or critical habitats.
In other words, formal consultation is about establishing mitigation and comes about if the BSA shows the presence of an endangered species or critical habitat and that the project is likely to adversely affect it. Formal consultation might also happen if there is a proposed species on the site. Less formal consultation might be entered into if the agency or you want assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help work out mitigation techniques.
Formal consultation is relatively rare but is something you should consider if developing a greenfield site that contains wetlands, watersheds, or potentially houses species that might be endangered.
How Much Should You Worry About a Biological Assessment?
A BSA can delay your project and if they discover a major adverse effect, it can force a lengthy delay, major mitigation, or cancellation. Because of this, it’s a good idea to do a preliminary biological survey on any land you are considering purchasing, whether or not state or local funding is involved. Even if you are not subject to CEQA, it is only good business to not put yourself in a position of having to worry about a rare plant growing on your land.
That said, needing a BSA is not something that will kill the project, and a good number of BSAs come back with a result of no significant impact. While no impact is rare, it is relatively easy to avoid major adverse effects. The real take home, of course, is to avoid sites that are primarily wetlands or other sensitive habitats and carefully choose your site and site plan to minimize environmental impacts.
Make sure that you do a preliminary biological survey before purchasing land, or at the very least well before breaking ground so that you can avoid the potential expense and delay of having to do a BSA and any follow-ups. Get an expert consultant to take a look before you commit to anything.