“Public participation is an essential part of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.” – CEQA Guidelines Section 15201

“Agencies shall make diligent efforts to involve the public in preparing and implementing their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures.” – Guidelines for Implementing NEPA Part 1506.6

“Achieving project success is often assisted by going beyond the usual posting of public notices and hosting the customary public hearings.” – Natalia Hentschel

When CEQA and NEPA public participation requirements aren’t enough to see your project through certification, it’s time to do more. But why is public participation essential, and how do we know when we need to go beyond just checking the box?

One of the primary reasons to engage the public in your CEQA or NEPA process is so that the public can be informed and have the opportunity to be involved in a project that may impact them or their interests. Planners often turn to the CEQA and NEPA guidelines for how to conduct public participation. But deciphering when your project calls for an expanded outreach effort can be tricky, especially when the impacts to budget and schedule are inevitable. Ask yourself the following eight questions at the inception of a process to make sure you are soliciting sufficient public participation so that your project doesn’t go awry:

  1. Does the project impact a geographic area and/or stakeholders beyond where the project is located?
  2. Does the project touch on a topic that is currently controversial in the media or among the general public?
  3. Is the project itself controversial?
  4. Is there the potential for misinformation? For example, could your project be easily confused with another project or program? Can the facts be misconstrued?
  5. Does the project name imply an action that can be negatively perceived by the public, such as the word “expansion” or “clean up”?
  6. Are there perceived impacts to a set of the population who may not receive any of the benefits of the project?
  7. Is there a high amount of public interest in the outcome of the proposal?
  8. Is the project description finalized, or is there room for the public to help shape it?

For some projects, the minimum public participation requirements may be more than sufficient for project success, but if you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be looking at a rough road ahead. It could be time for you to take an extra step and develop tailored public engagement strategies.

Why go through with all the trouble? Because doing so can help you deal head on with the challenges that are likely to arise from the scenarios above, and is critical to:

  • resolving potential issues early;
  • soliciting meaningful input to inform analyses;
  • developing creative solutions; and
  • raising awareness of and gaining support for the project.

The CEQA and NEPA processes are inherently ideal for broadening public participation. If your project requires ramping up public involvement, consider the following best practices for developing a successful public participation program:

  • Design a public engagement plan to serve as the road map for conducting public outreach from the early stages of the CEQA and NEPA process all the way to certification
  • Identify WHO needs to be informed about the project and involved in the CEQA and NEPA process, WHAT their interests and concerns are, and HOW best to engage them
  • Use multiple methods to reach the public, and tailor those methods to best respond to a specific stakeholder group’s needs
  • Ensure you are the direct source of communication and promptly correct misinformation
  • Maintain a high-quality, open, proactive and transparent communication process
  • Communicate accurate information about the project, the environmental review process and the comment opportunities early and often
  • Ensure all information is accessible
  • Diversify engagement opportunities to connect with stakeholders who do not typically attend public meetings, obtain information online or access local media outlets

The tips above can help you establish a strong public involvement program during the CEQA and NEPA process for successful communication with key stakeholders not only during development of the environmental document, but during project implementation as well.

By creating more conduits for public participation, lead agencies can expand public understanding of the project’s purpose, need and characteristics, as well as increase opportunities for people to provide meaningful and effective input. A wider outreach platform is critical to identifying and resolving issues early in the process and enhancing the credibility of the environmental document and agencies involved.

Natalia Hentschel and Tania Fragomeno are Public Outreach Specialists for Katz & Associates in San Diego, Calif.