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Thread: Environmental review (NEPA) specialists

  1. #1

    Environmental review (NEPA) specialists

    Just an observation... there seems to be countless openings for Environmental Review or NEPA specialists all across the county, for all levels of government and the private sector. The going salary seems decent. Someone coming out of college specializing in environmental planning would make a good candidate for the job but would probably be disappointed with the career since It seems to be heavy on the paperwork with very little actual planning.

    So what's Cyburbia's take on this? Mine is this could be an avenue for planners looking for jobs.
    Last edited by OfficialPlanner; 24 Aug 2011 at 12:44 PM.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner View post
    Just an observation... there seems to be countless openings for Environmental Review or NEPA specialists all across the county, for all levels of government and the private sector. The going salary seems decent. Someone coming out of college specializing in environmental planning would make a good candidate for the job but would probably be disappointed with the career since It seems to be heavy on the paperwork with very little actual planning.

    So what's Cyburbia's take on this? Mine is this could be an avenue for planners looking for jobs.
    NEPA planning is interesting. When I was neck-deep in preparing EIRs/EISs, I didn't think so, but after having experience in other types of planning work, it was actually pretty cool. I find it more engaging than long-range planning. Also, since everything hinges on your findings, it's quite autocratic, which is refreshing. However, there is a lot of law and regulations you need to know, and each state has their own version of NEPA that adds additional rules you need to know. You will still need to be aware of NEPA, because any project involving federal money or agencies will need NEPA compliance, but by and large your job will be dictated by the applicable state environmental regs. In California, CEQA is the boss, and all planning circles around it.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    There ARE NEPA jobs BUT I have found the majority of them dealing with the actual permitting, hazardous waste, threatened and endangered species, air, and water. Very few positions solely want socioeconomic, land use, ROW impacts, HP, Title VI etc., which is under the planning umbrella. Many of these jobs are not advertised on APA websites but through individual corporations. I actually use different search words besides NEPA or environmental planner to scrape out the jobs (and no, I'm not revealing those search words). More often than not I think you have a greater chance if you have AT THE VERY MINIMUM some working experience in these non-planning areas. CEQA is a whole different story.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

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  4. #4
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    NEPA planning is interesting. When I was neck-deep in preparing EIRs/EISs, I didn't think so, but after having experience in other types of planning work, it was actually pretty cool.
    IMHO you get burned out after a while. Everybody is different and surely there is a niche market. If you are a city person intent on making "great places' for people to "meet" and enjoy "walkable" places and enjoy culture, then you aren't going to go into env planning. .02

  5. #5
    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    IMHO you get burned out after a while. Everybody is different and surely there is a niche market. If you are a city person intent on making "great places' for people to "meet" and enjoy "walkable" places and enjoy culture, then you aren't going to go into env planning. .02
    For sure. I got burned out (twice) on one EIR that took over 4 years and in the end was over 3,000 pages. There are certain aspects of NEPA/CEQA work that are tedious to the extreme, but in general, it can be interesting most of the time.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    IMHO you get burned out after a while. Everybody is different and surely there is a niche market. If you are a city person intent on making "great places' for people to "meet" and enjoy "walkable" places and enjoy culture, then you aren't going to go into env planning. .02
    I agree 1000%!! The "city person" jobs are much more interesting and enjoyable but the problem is so few of those types of jobs are being advertised right now. Even the rare openings probably attract hundreds of applicants. Jobs for environmental specialists are much more plentiful, which is the point I am highlighting on this thread.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Veloise's avatar
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    One EIS class would qualify...

    In my experience (as a wireless site acquisition project manager for a major carrier), it would not require a lot of additional training to be qualified to draft up a Phase I. Appears to be complete boilerplate, with many charts and graphs to pad the page count. Many of those were compiled by the client (moi).

    The best part would be visiting localities and talking with municipal officials; that ol' networking thing.

    HTH

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by Veloise View post
    In my experience (as a wireless site acquisition project manager for a major carrier), it would not require a lot of additional training to be qualified to draft up a Phase I. Appears to be complete boilerplate, with many charts and graphs to pad the page count. Many of those were compiled by the client (moi).

    The best part would be visiting localities and talking with municipal officials; that ol' networking thing.

    HTH
    The problem with your assumption is the very narrow-focus of the EIS that would be written for a cell tower site. These are project-specific review documents, and their impacts are much more straightforward, and you wouldn't have to review many environmental subjects. A large development, however, is a program, meaning the impacts are not as straightforward, and require you to examine pretty much every environmental area NEPA (in my case, CEQA, which has more requirements) pertains to.

    The scope of an EIR/EIS varies greatly (from 300 pages to 3,000, in my experience alone) depending on the type/size/scope of the "project" itself. Sure, there's lots of boilerplate language in something like a cell tower site, because these have been done a million times and there's no point in reinventing the wheel. However, with large, political housing or commercial developments, the level of scrutiny escalates exponentially, and suddenly you can't use any boilerplate language.

    Basically, comparing your example to a large development EIR/EIS is like saying an engine overhaul is no problem because you've changed the oil dozens of times on your own.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    The problem with your assumption is the very narrow-focus of the EIS that would be written for a cell tower site. These are project-specific review documents, and their impacts are much more straightforward, and you wouldn't have to review many environmental subjects. A large development, however, is a program, meaning the impacts are not as straightforward, and require you to examine pretty much every environmental area NEPA (in my case, CEQA, which has more requirements) pertains to.

    The scope of an EIR/EIS varies greatly (from 300 pages to 3,000, in my experience alone) depending on the type/size/scope of the "project" itself. Sure, there's lots of boilerplate language in something like a cell tower site, because these have been done a million times and there's no point in reinventing the wheel. However, with large, political housing or commercial developments, the level of scrutiny escalates exponentially, and suddenly you can't use any boilerplate language.

    Basically, comparing your example to a large development EIR/EIS is like saying an engine overhaul is no problem because you've changed the oil dozens of times on your own.
    I agree. I have "boilerplated" some projects through categorical exclusions. If it is a tiny project (less than an acre or two) in an area with few existing conditions, there is no need to do an in-depth wetland or archaeological analysis, for example. But then again in most states, I am curious if you even NEED an EA for a cellular tower?

    As for training, you can learn a lot of it on the job. The biggest learning curve for me was more about carefully documenting everything and accounting for every item. Many times the actual analysis wasn't even that complicated.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  10. #10
    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    I agree. I have "boilerplated" some projects through categorical exclusions. If it is a tiny project (less than an acre or two) in an area with few existing conditions, there is no need to do an in-depth wetland or archaeological analysis, for example. But then again in most states, I am curious if you even NEED an EA for a cellular tower?

    As for training, you can learn a lot of it on the job. The biggest learning curve for me was more about carefully documenting everything and accounting for every item. Many times the actual analysis wasn't even that complicated.
    Thorough documentation is critical. All of that information comprises the administrative record which can be called back up in a court before a judge (including emails). With large developments, or particularly onerous projects (e.g. within California Coastal Zone), this happens very often. Consultants or clients who think they can easily cobble together their own MND, EIR/EIS, etc., have never had their environmental review documents go to court. The best specialists anticipate every question a judge would have, and that ability only comes from experience. The best of the best are called when a particular client knows it will go to court.

    But going back to Veloise's comment... doing a Phase I, I assume you're talking about a phase 1 environmental assessment? Yes, just about anyone could do that, with basic training, because a phase 1 env assessment is merely a records and document search (possibly a site visit) to see if contamination is potentially present. If you know which databases to search and have aerial maps, etc., it can be fairly straightforward. However, this is just one small step in preparing an EIS/EIR, dealing with only one environmental impact area: soils.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner View post
    Just an observation... there seems to be countless openings for Environmental Review or NEPA specialists all across the county, for all levels of government and the private sector. The going salary seems decent. Someone coming out of college specializing in environmental planning would make a good candidate for the job but would probably be disappointed with the career since It seems to be heavy on the paperwork with very little actual planning.

    So what's Cyburbia's take on this? Mine is this could be an avenue for planners looking for jobs.

    Another CA experience here, so take with a regional grain of salt. I'm familiar with NEPA and could probably do a NEPA project, but have never dealt with one. I have, however, done more CEQA projects than I can count.

    As a private sector environmental planner, I would disagree with your characterization that environmental planning is "heavy on the paperwork with very little actual planning."

    The paperwork aspect... well, yes, lots of paper work. Nature of the beast - and I would remind folks that paperwork is not unique to the environmental planner (though probably true that our paperwork is a bit more boring and technical, probably more voluminous too).

    However, there seems to be a common perception among planners that somehow environmental planning isn't planning. Yet, environmental planners use the same process as "urban planners" do... Goals, constraints, alternatives, select, evaluate, implement, blah blah - it's the same; assuming, of course, that we're involved early enough in the process (and aren't just being forced to mitigate all the impacts of a poorly designed project - which happens sometimes). CEQA requires us to consider and evaluate things like community character, land use compatibility, aesthetics, consistency with local/regional plans and policies, etc., all of which factor heavily into the design of a project.

    The primary difference between an environmental planner and an agency planner (i.e., "advanced" planner) is scale. Whereas I deal with projects ranging in size from 0.25 acre to 5,000 acres (usually undeveloped or agriculture), advanced planning departments tend to deal at the community or city/county level. At the community or city/county scale, environmental planners aren't very effective - mostly because of lack of available information (i.e., site-specific biology, cultural, etc., plus lack of detail for individual sites since we're dealing only with land use designations). However, at the scale of an individual project site, planning is what we do.

    Getting back to the main point - I don't think it's fair to say that most folks would be "disappointed" with environmental planning. Granted, if your goal is to create city-wide plans through an extensive public participation/outreach process, environmental planning probably isn't for you. However, I would argue that environmental planning involves more "planning" than the "current planning" that goes on at most planning departments - at least in the sense that what you ultimately see on the ground is more the result of the environmental planner than the current planner.

    Again, this probably only applies to CA, maybe a few other places with strong environmental laws. In most other places, unless you trigger NEPA, environmental planning probably has a much lesser role in the entitlement process.
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  12. #12
    Quote Originally posted by tarf12345678 View post
    The primary difference between an environmental planner and an agency planner (i.e., "advanced" planner) is scale. Whereas I deal with projects ranging in size from 0.25 acre to 5,000 acres (usually undeveloped or agriculture), advanced planning departments tend to deal at the community or city/county level. At the community or city/county scale, environmental planners aren't very effective - mostly because of lack of available information (i.e., site-specific biology, cultural, etc., plus lack of detail for individual sites since we're dealing only with land use designations). However, at the scale of an individual project site, planning is what we do.
    I think you're obfuscating program and project EISs/EIRs. They are all "planning," regardless of whether it's reviewing a specific project (site-specific with drawings, etc.) or a program (general/comprehensive plan, master plan, specific plan). It all requires environmental review, and you use the same skills and techniques and knowledge base. When you write program EIRs, even when you lack information about how areas will be built out, you still review most environmental impact areas--your scope of review is just different, and the mitigation is usually broad enough to cover a range of circumstances. It's not just land use designations... you must anticipate the scale, density, nature, pretty much everything you can envision about how the plan can be built out. That requires in depth analysis of most environmental impact subjects. When those areas are proposed to be built with actual projects, they will be reviewed for consistency with the program EIR you did in the first place to see if they would incur impacts not covered there. If so, they would require further review and more specific or different mitigation. This ensures there are no gaps between the overall program and the impacts determined today and the specific project and its actual impacts tomorrow.

    Program EIRs can be very complex, because you have a constituency (and often your own client) that very often do not understand the difference between a proposed program of development and a proposed project, much less the different requirements for NEPA/CEQA review in each instance. In any case, the program EIR/EIS requires the same type of analysis as your more common individual projects (buildings, commercial development, road improvement, etc.).

    As far as the whole "paperwork" thing and the OP: planning involves a lot of bullshit paperwork, and very little of what you do in school. That's just the way it is. Except for urban designers slaving over Autocad all day (not something I envy), every other planner does plenty of bullshit paperwork bureaucratic nonsense, interspersed with some interesting things here or there. Environmental planning, in my opinion, provides the same number of interesting things here or there to get involved with. NEPA and CEQA provide plenty of bullshit nonsense; a lot of things don't make sense; plenty of opportunities to perform poorly and be an idiot planner; but as you gain expertise in something, you can eventually take pride in your practice if you don't turn into a jaded asshole like me.
    Last edited by chocolatechip; 04 Sep 2011 at 9:31 PM.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian chupacabra's avatar
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    If I was an unemployed planner I would be jumping at a NEPA job. It's only as boring as the specific project, and to be honest, much of what you urban planners do looks less exciting to me - but I am a planner who does NEPA as part of my projects and not just a NEPA nerd. i might be singing a different tune if all I did was chapters 3 and 4.
    You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    I think you're obfuscating program and project EISs/EIRs. They are all "planning," regardless of whether it's reviewing a specific project (site-specific with drawings, etc.) or a program (general/comprehensive plan, master plan, specific plan).

    Nope, not confusing them at all. As I noted in my post, environmental planning at a programmatic scale does not have the impact on the planning process that it does at the site-specific scale (that's not to say there isn't a process or that it doesn't play a role). Look at a General Plan land use map. Other than some areas shown as open space for the most obvious of environmental constraints, the land use plan and General Plan policies by and large are not the result of the environmental process. At such a scale, environmental planning tends to be something of an afterthought - evaluating and mitigating for a plan that was developed through a public participation process.

    By contrast, at the site-specific scale, the configuration of land uses and selection of policies is influenced to a much greater degree by the environmental process - in some cases, the plan is entirely the result of the environmental planning process.

    Thus, for someone interested in having an influence on the built environment, environmental planning does have an influence - but more so at the site scale than at the city/county scale.
    In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. (Douglas Adams)

  15. #15
    Quote Originally posted by tarf12345678 View post
    Nope, not confusing them at all. As I noted in my post, environmental planning at a programmatic scale does not have the impact on the planning process that it does at the site-specific scale (that's not to say there isn't a process or that it doesn't play a role). Look at a General Plan land use map. Other than some areas shown as open space for the most obvious of environmental constraints, the land use plan and General Plan policies by and large are not the result of the environmental process. At such a scale, environmental planning tends to be something of an afterthought - evaluating and mitigating for a plan that was developed through a public participation process.

    By contrast, at the site-specific scale, the configuration of land uses and selection of policies is influenced to a much greater degree by the environmental process - in some cases, the plan is entirely the result of the environmental planning process.

    Thus, for someone interested in having an influence on the built environment, environmental planning does have an influence - but more so at the site scale than at the city/county scale.
    Any plan/program or project must go through environmental compliance/"planning" and that process can and will change the program or project. A general plan land use map's depiction of open space areas are not all there is when determining the impact of environmental planning on the long range process. As far as the second bolded line above, you are completely wrong. Oftentimes, it is the anticipation of CEQA/NEPA review that planners will incorporate environmental policy into their long range plans, so that mitigation is built in. The environmental review stage will formulate additional policy if it has not already been built in to the plan. Perhaps your experience with environmental planning hasn't been with very good firms or individuals--people who treat it as an afterthought. In California at least, no one can afford to treat CEQA as an afterthought, and any planning consulting or design firm worth its salt will incorporate environmental principles from the get-go. This is, in fact, part of planning's best practices.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by tarf12345678 View post
    Nope, not confusing them at all. As I noted in my post, environmental planning at a programmatic scale does not have the impact on the planning process that it does at the site-specific scale (that's not to say there isn't a process or that it doesn't play a role). Look at a General Plan land use map. Other than some areas shown as open space for the most obvious of environmental constraints, the land use plan and General Plan policies by and large are not the result of the environmental process. At such a scale, environmental planning tends to be something of an afterthought - evaluating and mitigating for a plan that was developed through a public participation process.

    By contrast, at the site-specific scale, the configuration of land uses and selection of policies is influenced to a much greater degree by the environmental process - in some cases, the plan is entirely the result of the environmental planning process.

    Thus, for someone interested in having an influence on the built environment, environmental planning does have an influence - but more so at the site scale than at the city/county scale.
    Outside of CEQA (and maybe a few other states) I think you are confusing visioning/goals/objectives (part of long range planning) with environmental planning. These specific components within long-range projects (comprehensive plans, neighborhood plans, regional plans, open space plans) may (or may not) include provisions for additional open space dedications, land set aside to protect natural resources, either because it enhances the character of the community or it is required by a separate agency (or higher). Many states have compiled statutes that require certain types of communities to establish and update a comprehensive plan. However, in many cases it is up to the community to determine the approval process (which includes public involvement).

    The majority of environmental planning, that is EISs, EAs, etc., assess environmental impacts on proposed PHYSICAL improvements (i.e. roads, bridges, subdivisions). The public participation/involvement process is more narrowly defined by the EPA, FAA, FEMA, state agencies, or other groups. Land uses, whether they are zoned uses, existing uses, or future land uses, are viewed as existing conditions, just like census tracts, wetlands, or hazardous waste sites. It is far cheaper to mitigate the project to "suit" the existing conditions than vice versa. For example, would you move a road around a fruit bat colony or would you the fruit bat colony away from the road that doesn't exist yet?
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