California Department of Transportation
 

Module 2: Visual Character
Lesson 7: VIA Scoping Process

Slide 9

The VIA Scoping Process

The first lesson of Module 2 is Lesson 7 for the overall course: The VIA Scoping Process.

 

Slide 10

The VIA Scoping Process

In this lesson we are going to look at how scoping the project and scoping the VIA document are coordinated.  We will also present four different levels of assessment and how an on-line questionnaire can be used to determine the appropriate level.  We will also review the CEQA Checklist to see if visual issues are a concern for this project.  Finally, we will present how the Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) and the Project Initiation Document (PID) relate to the VIA scoping process.

 

Slide 11

Scoping Overview

First let’s look at an overview of the scoping process, particularly how it relates to developing a visual impact assessment.  We will examine the four topics listed on this slide. (Again, notice the bullets are arrows, indicating that there will be more information on subsequent slides for each bulleted item.) 

 

Slide 12

Scoping Overview

Any Caltrans project that uses federal or state money requires a VIA. Essentially, all Caltrans projects require a visual impact assessment. There are, however, different levels of projects with corresponding different levels of assessment and documentation.  The documentation of these levels of assessment varies from single page memoranda for simple projects with no or few visual impacts to large documents with an extensive analysis of visual impacts.  Regardless of the level, even if only it is a note to the file, a visual impact assessment is required for all federal and state-funded projects. 

For our purposes, we will divide the levels of assessment and documentation into four groups: minor, moderate, complex, or advanced.  These categories are useful, particularly for scoping, but they shouldn’t be considered absolute or even that distinct.  In fact, they generally shade one into the other imperceptibly. 

 

Slide 13

Scoping Overview

Scoping the VIA is critical.  Scoping determines the assessment level—minor, moderate, complex, or advanced.  It also determines the schedule—when the VIA will start and when it will be finished.  Scoping identifies the capital costs of mitigation (typically construction or installation, not the life-cycle costs).  Most importantly it identifies the staff that is needed to complete the assessment and their budget for producing a document.

 

Slide 14

Scoping Overview

A project’s visual impact assessment contributes to the development of a project during all of its phases, from initial planning through preliminary and final design, construction, and maintenance.  Scoping of the VIA begins in the K Phase and is refined in the 0 Phase.

As previously noted in Module 1, this chart, Caltrans Project Delivery - Visual Impact Assessment Process is available for review.

 

Slide 15

Scoping Overview

The production of a VIA and reporting its findings in the project’s environmental document is a team effort between a Landscape Architect and an Environmental Generalist.  The landscape architect determines the level of assessment using the SER Questionnaire and the aesthetics section of the CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist - AestheticsBoth items are from Chapter 27 of the Standard Environmental Reference (SER).

It is the responsibility of the landscape architect to inform the environmental generalist of level of assessment that the landscape architect will use to produce the VIA.  In turn, the environmental generalist uses the information from the landscape architect, information from other specialists, and other considerations to determine the level of environmental documentation. 

Typically, the more complex or controversial a project is the more complex the level of VIA and environmental documentation that is required.  The level of documentation between the VIA and the project’s environmental documents is usually similar but it is not required that they be identical. 

 

Slide 16

Levels of Assessment

There are four major levels of visual impact assessments—minor, moderate, advanced, and complex.  At each level, the nature of the project changes becoming increasing complex.  Similarly, the content of the VIA changes for each level, also becoming more complex.  These ideas are explored further in subsequent slides.

 

Slide 17

Levels of Assessment

Each level of assessment has its own attributes which will be discussed further on subsequent slides.  There are shadings between levels—it may be appropriate, for example, to use an approach typically thought of as being a moderate-level approach when discussing visual character but in the same VIA to use a complex-level approach when discussing viewer sensitivity.   The author of the VIA should simply use the SER Questionnaire to determine a general level of assessment as guidance and then use whatever level of analysis that is appropriate to the complexity and controversy of the project when analyzing specific attributes.

 

Slide 18

Levels of Assessment

In general, the character of the project is different for each level.  The Project Character by Assessment Level Table shown in the slide lists twelve characteristics of projects and how they are different for each level of VIA assessment. Once the level of assessment has been determined using the SER Scoping Questionnaire, the author of the VIA can use this chart to see how to put together the VIA document.

It is also possible to use this table in an inverse fashion—to determine the nature of each characteristic first based on project documentation needs and then determine the level of assessment.  By using the table in this manner, for example, the author may discover that most categories suggest that the required documentation would be satisfied at a moderate level but the need to analyze viewer sensitivity is at a complex level, creating the need for a hybrid document.

The SER and this table are merely guides for the professional conducting the VIA.  The level of assessment is, of course, ultimately a matter of professional judgment.  These tools, the SER, and these tables serve only as guidance.

 

Slide 19

Levels of Assessment

The typical content of a VIA document varies by assessment level.  The VIA Document Content by Assessment Level Table describes, by assessment level, what is typically included in a VIA document.  Notice that the documents get more complex as the level of assessment gets more complex.

 

Slide 20

SER Questionnaire

In order to determine the level of assessment, the landscape architect employs the scoping questionnaire found in Chapter 27 of the on-line Standard Environmental Reference (SER).  Next we will be using this SER Questionnaire to determine the level of assessment we should perform for our fictitious team project.

 

Slide 21

SER Questionnaire

To apply the SER Questionnaire to our team project, click Exercise 2 - SER Questionnaire.

 

Slide 22

SER Questionnaire

Fill out the SER Questionnaire based on your chosen alternative to determine the level of assessment.

 

Slide 23

SER Questionnaire

Let’s go through the ten questions on the SER Questionnaire together.  The first five questions have to do with the visual environment or visual resources—the blue boxes on the FHWA VIA Process Concept DiagramThe second set of five questions have to do with viewers—the yellow boxes on the FHWA VIA Flow Diagram.  The SER Questionnaire is typically completed by the landscape architect as a way to determine the level of assessment needed to analyze visual impacts.

 

Slide 24

SER Questionnaire

Let’s start with the first question, Will the project result in a noticeable change in the physical characteristics of the existing environment?   What is the level of change for your chosen alternative?  Choose an answer with a numerical rating of 1 through 3.

For Alternative 1, the alternative that stays on existing alignment merely widening the shoulder, keeps the existing bridge but adds a new pedestrian crossing of Golden Creek, coupled with some parking restrictions through downtown Golden, the answer may be either a low level of change or perhaps a moderate level of change.

For Alternative 4, the construction of a new four-lane road and a new bridge on new alignment constitute a high level of change. You would, therefore, place the number that represents the highest level of change, the number 3 on your worksheet.

 

Slide 25

SER Questionnaire

Review the Team Project Map, the Team Project Narrative, and the Team Project Photolog.  How compatible do you think the visual character of any of the alternatives will be to the visual character desired by the community?   Put the corresponding number on your worksheet.

 

Slide 26

SER Questionnaire

Considering the features proposed for all four alternatives, what do you think will be the level of concern?  Is it low, medium, or high?  Place the corresponding number on your worksheet.

 

Slide 27

SER Questionnaire

Mitigation of adverse impacts is always required.  Given the alternatives, do you believe that typical or normal mitigation will be sufficient or will extensive mitigation be required for your alternative?  Are the visual impacts so severe that a new alternative should be developed?  Determine your answer and then put the corresponding number on your worksheet.

 

Slide 28

SER Questionnaire

This is a question about cumulative impacts.  Essentially it is asking how significant is the project as a catalyst for additional change in the visual environment.  The assumption is that the longer it will take for cumulative impacts to occur, the less the highway by itself generates that potential impact.  Determine if you think cumulative impacts will occur or not and if they occur will they happen soon or later.  Put the corresponding number on your worksheet.

This concludes the first five questions which were about the environment.

 

Slide 29

SER Questionnaire

The next set of five questions are about viewer sensitivity.  The first question about viewer sensitivity asks how controversial is the proposed project to viewers.  If it has a low potential for controversy, insert 1 on your worksheet; a moderate potential, place a 2; high potential, insert a 3.

 

Slide 30

SER Questionnaire

The second question on viewer sensitivity asks how sensitive are the viewers to changes in their visual environment?  The more important the visual environment is to a particular group of viewers, the more sensitive they will be to changes.  Rate the sensitiveness of the viewers from 1 to 3, putting your rating on your worksheet.

 

Slide 31

SER Questionnaire

You know something of the nature of the populations in Oceanview and Golden.  From that knowledge infer what sort of regulations such a community may generate.  How compatible will the proposed alternatives be with these community policies and regulations?  Place the number that corresponds to your answer on your worksheet.

 

Slide 32

SER Questionnaire

Are there any permits required for any of the alternatives?  Are any of the alternatives likely to be in the coastal zone?  Place the number corresponding to your answer on your worksheet.

 

Slide 33

SER Questionnaire

The last question is a stop and check question—will the decision makers require extensive information about visual issues and impacts in order to make a build/no-build decision?  Fill in your worksheet with the number that corresponds to your answer.

 

Slide 34

SER Questionnaire

The last question is a stop and check question—will the decision makers require extensive information about visual issues and impacts in order to make a build/no-build decision?  Fill in your worksheet with the number that corresponds to your answer.

 

Slide 35

SER Questionnaire

Add up your ratings to get a total score.

 

Slide 36

SER Questionnaire

Complete the worksheet, reading the directions on the slide and doing the math.  A score between 10 and 14 suggests that only a Minor Analysis is necessary to adequately ascertain visual impacts.  If the score is between 15 and 19, a Moderate Analysis is required.  If the score is between 20 and 24, an Advanced Analysis is necessary.  If the score is between 25 and 30, a Complex Analysis would typically be required in order to sufficiently understand the visual impacts that may be caused by the proposed project.

 

Slide 37

CEQA Checklist

The Environmental Generalist uses the CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist - Aesthetics to determine the level that visual quality impacts will be evaluated. The checklist asks four questions.  We will go over the four questions, one at a time with you filling in the checklist with what you believe are the appropriate answers for the team project.

 

Slide 38

CEQA Checklist

Click on Exercise 3 - CEQA Checklist if you would like to complete the checklist, and answer the questions on the following slides.

 

Slide 39

CEQA Checklist

Refer to the Team Project Map, the Team Project Narrative, and the Team Project Photolog as you answer the aesthetics questions on the CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist.  The CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist - Aesthetics, is the set of four questions about aesthetics and visual impacts found on the checklist.   The four questions are part of a more inclusive CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist that can be found in the CEQA Environmental Significance Checklist - Complete.

 

Slide 40

CEQA Checklist

Question 1a: Will the project have a substantial adverse effect on a scenic vista?

This question refers to a particular view of a specific resource.  A similar but more general question is CEQA Question 1c.

 

Slide 41

CEQA Checklist

Question 1b: Will the project substantially damage scenic resources including, but not limited to, trees, rock outcroppings, and historic buildings within a state scenic highway?

Note that if the answer is “yes,” then the project cannot be processed as a CEQA Categorical Exclusion (CE).  A State Scenic Highway is considered by CEQA a very important designation.  Nonetheless, emergency and seismic projects may quality for a CE when no substantial damage occurs to scenic resources within a state scenic highway. 

 

Slide 42

CEQA Checklist

Question 1c: Will the project substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings? 

This is a more general question than the specific question asked in Question 1b.

 

Slide 43

CEQA Checklist

Question 1d: Will the project create a new source of substantial light or glare which would adversely affect day or night time views in the area?

This is an excellent question.  Unfortunately most visual impact assessments tend to discuss impacts as if the project will only cause impacts on a clear, early-summer day.  Later in this course, we will emphasize the need to consider different seasons and times of day when assessing visual impacts caused by highway projects.  This question is a good place to start thinking about these issues.

 

Slide 44

CEQA Checklist

Answering the previous four questions about aesthetics are only a part of the scoping process the Environmental Generalist uses to determine the level of environmental document that should be used for this project.   What level of environmental documentation is suggested by your answers to the CEQA Checklist?

The following two slides present how the visual issues identified by SER Questionnaire and the CEQA Checklist are incorporated into scoping process, particularly the development of the Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) and the Project Initiation Document (PID).

 

Slide 45

PEAR/PID

Based on the findings of the SER Questionnaire, a review of the project documents that currently exist, possibly a field review, and conversations with the environmental generalist and others as appropriate, the landscape architect assigned to do the VIA determines the potential level of visual impact and the corresponding level of documentation that will be needed to adequately determine visual impacts and the need for mitigation.  The landscape architect will also determine the VIA schedule, particularly how long it will take to complete.

 

Slide 46

PEAR/PID

The Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) is prepared as part of the Project Initiation Document (PID).  A Scenic Resource Evaluation (SRE) or preliminary VIA should be included in the PEAR.  This will identify if scenic resources or a Scenic Highway as identified by CEQA are present and if the project could impact them.  The PID should also identify possible mitigation measures and their costs.

 

Slide 47

PEAR/PID

What do you think should be included in a Preliminary Scenic Resource Evaluation (SRE) or VIA for our team project?  Is there an officially designated Scenic Highway from which someone may be able to see one or more of the alternatives?   Are there officially designated historic properties that may be similarly affected?  Do you have any evidence of rock outcroppings?  (If you don’t think that the answer is “Yes” to all of these questions, you should review the Team Project Map, the Team Project Narrative, and the Team Project Photolog, again.) 

How would you briefly characterize the difference in visual impacts between the alternatives?

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Module 2A, Lesson 8 - Labeling the Landscape