Understanding the Public Comment Process
Public Comment Periods
Public comment periods ensure that all citizens have an opportunity to express their views on NCPC initiatives or projects subject to Commission review. NCPC posts all notices of public comment periods on the website.
Public comment periods occur at specific stages in the planning and plan review processes. The notice specifies an established time limit, usually 30 to 90 days.
NCPC initiatives intended for Commission adoption are released in draft form for public comment.
Federal agency plans and projects requiring Commission action—advice or approval—must be assessed by the submitting agencies according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
NCPC also has its own NEPA obligations for projects over which it has approval authority.
The Council on Environmental Quality provides a comprehensive guide to citizen participation in NEPA. It also issues government-wide NEPA regulations.
NCPC has its own rules related to implementing NEPA that tell the public what information is available for public comment and at what stage during the process.
Implementation of NEPA—including provisions for public participation—varies across agencies. You may want to check the submitting agencies' rules.
What NEPA Does
NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of proposed actions and decisions. Part of that assessment process requires input from people outside the federal government. Through the NEPA process, citizens can learn about and shape federal decisionmaking.
NEPA defines “Environment” broadly. It includes environmental, economic, and social impacts. NEPA analyses may include the effects on endangered species and water quality. It may also consider the consequences for historic buildings and the economic vitality of a community.
NEPA does not require agencies to select the environmentally preferable alternative or prohibit adverse environmental effects. It requires only that Federal decisionmakers be informed of the environmental consequences of their decisions. (top)
How the NEPA Process Works
The NEPA process should begin as soon as an agency develops a project proposal. In considering a proposed project or action, a federal agency must determine what kind of environmental review is required. Major actions that may significantly affect the environment require Environmental Impact Statements (EIS).
Actions that will not have a significant effect on the environment may be "categorically excluded" from further environmental review absent extraordinary circumstances. Actions eligible for categorical exclusion vary across agencies. Agencies develop a list of these exclusions based on their own experience and in consultation with CEQ. If an agency claims that a project or action is eligible for categorical exclusion, it must specify which categorical exclusion applies.
For all actions that do not require an EIS or are not categorically excluded the agency must prepare an Environmental Assessment. (top)
Categorical Exclusion (CE)
Some projects—like minor renovations—are unlikely to have significant environmental effects. Each agency has its own regulations listing the types of projects that qualify for its own Categorical Exclusions. The agency’s operations and past experience help them develop this list. If the proposed action meets the terms of the specific Categorical Exclusion (CE, or Cat Ex), it requires no further environmental analysis.
If NCPC finds that an agency’s application of a Cat Ex is incorrect, it asks for further environmental review. (Top)
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
Sometimes it is obvious that a project will have a significant effect on the environment. For these projects, the submitting agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). If the project requires NCPC approval, NCPC may adopt the applicant’s EIS or develop its own.
The EIS process—carried out by the applicant agency or by NCPC—begins with the publication of a Notice of Intent to “scope” a project. This notice provides a brief description of the project, possible alternatives, and an overview of the scoping process, including opportunities for public participation. If an applicant agency is writing the EIS, NCPC usually participates as a “cooperating agency."
The scoping process determines the scope of the environmental review—the issues to be addressed, the analyses to be included, the alternatives to be examined, and a timeline for completion. Agencies are required to identify and invite the participation of interested persons. How they do this is up to them. They may hold public meetings, formal hearings, or informal workshops, among other things.
A member of the public involved in scoping helps determine the parameters of the EIS.
The agency writing the EIS then undertakes the review and prepares a draft EIS analyzing the reasonable alternatives developed during scoping. If the agency eliminates alternatives from the analysis it must include a justification for their removal. The EIS always includes a “no action alternative.”
The public has an opportunity to comment on the draft EIS, usually for at least 45 days. Some agencies have a longer comment period. Sometimes it is extended.
The drafting agency then analyzes the comments and conducts any new analyses required in preparation of the final EIS. The final EIS must include responses to the substantive comments from other government agencies and members of the public. Further adjustments to the final EIS may occur, after which the agency publishes it.
At least 30 days must pass after publication before the agency may decide to move ahead with the proposed action. The action agency issues a Record of Decision (ROD) that states the decision and recaps the EIS. It also discusses mitigation plans for any environmental impact that will occur, including monitoring and enforcement commitments.
NCPC’s Commission Actions are the equivalent of an NCPC Record of Decision that approves, disapproves, or grants conditional approval to a project. You may search for Commission Actions on the NCPC website.
A supplemental EIS (SEIS) is required if a project changes substantially, significant new circumstances arise, or new information becomes available that may have a significant bearing on the environmental impacts. A supplemental EIS is prepared like a draft or final EIS, except that scoping is not required. (top)
Environmental Assessment (EA)
If the environmental effects of an action are uncertain, or an agency cannot include it among its Categorical Exclusions, the applicant agency must develop an Environmental Assessment (EA) that NCPC considers as it evaluates the project. An EA has fewer regulatory requirements than an EIS, and agencies have more leeway in determining the level of public involvement, but public involvement is required.
Usually the applicant agency develops the EA and NCPC participates as a cooperating agency. When NCPC writes the EA, NCPC conducts initial scoping and provides a public comment period on the final EA.
The EA is a relatively concise document that sets out the evidence and analyses sufficient for determining whether an EIS is necessary. It also provides useful environmental information to the agency decisionmakers.
If the agency determines, based on the EA, that a project will have no significant environmental impact, it issues a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) statement. NCPC’s FONSIs are posted to the website. There is no public comment period associated with them.
If either the applicant agency or NCPC determines based on the EA that a project may have a significant enviromental impact, it may provide for project mitigation to reduce the impact or start an EIS. (top)
National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)
NCPC and federal agencies applying for NCPC approval of a project must also evaluate any adverse effects on historic properties under the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act. As with NEPA, NCPC has guidelines implementing this requirement.
The Section 106 Process is the set of procedures by which an applicant agency and NCPC consider the possibility of adverse impacts and develop an agreement to address them.
NCPC recognizes the importance of public input in the Section 106 Process and creates opportunities for public involvement throughout that process. NCPC’s approach to Section 106— including the importance of public participation—is set out in Section 7 of the NCPC Guidelines. Useful information is also available from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.