Revisions to guidelines planners use to assess the significance of historical resources got a thumbs-up from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission and will now go to the Board of Supervisors for the final OK.
Commissioners meeting Wednesday in Santa Maria voted 3-0 to recommend approval of the updates, with Chairman C. Michael Cooney absent and the 3rd District seat as yet unfilled.
No one from the public was at the hearing to comment on the changes to how the county assesses the impacts that projects can have on cultural resources.
The revisions specifically apply to the “thresholds of significance” or the “quantitative, qualitative or performance level” of project mitigation measures that would have a significant impact on a historical resource if not met but would be considered less than significant if complied with.
A county staff report indicates the updates are the first made to the chapter on threshold guidelines in nearly a quarter of a century, although the manual that includes them has been updated more than half a dozen times.
They reflect changes in the California Environmental Quality Act made over the last 24 years, although the criteria for determining the importance of a historical resource are slightly different from those used by the state, said Glenn Russell, director of the County Planning and Development Department.
“CEQA has changed so significantly from the early ’90s when these guidelines were adopted, and there’s a lot of good stuff in there to rely on,” Russell said of the updates.
Divided into archaeological, tribal cultural and historic categories, cultural resources are defined as those listed in or eligible for the state Register of Historical Resources or a local registry, identified as significant in a resource survey or deemed by a lead agency to be significant to the architectural, engineering, scientific, economic, agricultural, educational, social, political, military or cultural history of the state.
A lead agency can determine the significance of archaeological and historical sites, assess the impact of a project on those sites and develop mitigation measures.
However, when it comes to tribal cultural resources, which were added to CEQA as a category in 2015, lead agencies must involve Native American tribes in assessing their significance, evaluating potential impacts and determining mitigation measures, and the county guidelines have been updated to reflect those requirements.
Russell said that under CEQA, tribes are considered experts in those processes and “may be given permanent conservation easements” to assure resources are protected.
Basically, “tribal cultural resources” refers to “things that are important to tribes,” Russell said, and they can be sites, locations, features, sacred places and objects with a cultural value to the tribe or a cultural landscape with a clearly defined geographical area.
Consultation with tribes is required on all negative declarations, mitigated negative declarations and environmental impact reports for all projects because California is blanketed with Native American sites.
Many of them are considered sacred, but sometimes that may not be known or suspected.
Russell told commissioners about a proposed project that involved a hill on private property. County staff was in the process of evaluating the project when they were informed it wasn’t just any hill.
It was known to the Chumash as “anapamu,” meaning “the rising place,” and it was considered sacred to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
The name lives on today as a street in Santa Barbara, but as with all Native American sacred sites, the location of the hill is confidential.
In most cases, the only way to identify a particular location as a sacred site is to ask the Native American Heritage Commission to conduct a sacred lands search, which will result in essentially a “yes it is” or “no it is not” answer, Russell said.
Under the new CEQA guidelines, tribes must request a consultation within 30 days of an offer to consult from a lead agency. The consultation ends, however, as soon as agreement is reached or once it is clear no agreement will be reached.
The county’s updated guidelines also include a number of tools for evaluating cultural resources and project impacts, including how to deal with the discovery of human remains, an initial study checklist, formats for fieldwork results, examples of typical adverse impacts and common methods of mitigating impacts and a sample negative historic resources report letter.