August 1, 2023

The Importance of a Critical Issues Analysis in Project Development

Two Westwood employees walking through a heavily wooded area discussing the environment. Two Westwood employees walking through a heavily wooded area discussing the environment.

Written by Kelly Kunst, Sr. Permitting Specialist, and Aidan Oldenburg, Environmental Scientist

In the fast-paced world of projects, from wind and solar energy sites to data centers or residential development, a Critical Issues Analysis (CIA) is a vital key to successful project execution. The CIA identifies potential environmental risks and helps developers make informed decisions about site selection, project layout, and buildable area. This preliminary, comprehensive approach ensures the identification of fatal flaws or significant development hurdles early in the development process. Projects can be designed to minimize environmental impacts. This article delves into the different aspects of a CIA, its importance in project development, and how it can help streamline the entire process.

The Necessity of Critical Issues Analysis in Project Development

Understanding the Environmental Impact

A CIA is an essential part of the due diligence process that provides a desktop evaluation of potential environmental risks and land use constraints associated with a project site. This analysis examines the presence of wetlands, floodplains, endangered species, cultural resources, and other sensitive areas that may affect the project's feasibility. Developers can make informed decisions about the project site by conducting a CIA and taking necessary precautions to minimize potential environmental impacts.

The CIA can cover additional topics to provide more detailed information beyond mapping resources if requested. Common desktop analysis can include a desktop wetland delineation, desktop geotechnical evaluations, or high-level desktop hydrology assessment broadly defining on and off-site drainage areas,

Ensuring Compliance with Regulations

In addition to assessing the environmental constraints, a CIA helps developers get an overview of applicable local, state, and federal regulations for a given project. The project types can vary – from energy storage to commercial development – but every project still needs a careful assessment of regulations. The overview includes required permits, applicable zoning and land use ordinances, and potential setbacks that would apply to the project. The in-depth CIA helps developers anticipate and navigate the complex regulatory landscape, thus, reducing the risk of costly delays and development challenges.

Streamlining the Project Development Process

Time is of the essence in project development. Delays can result in increased costs and missed opportunities. By conducting a comprehensive critical issues analysis early in the process, developers can identify potential roadblocks and develop strategies to mitigate risks. This proactive approach helps streamline project development, saving developers time and money.

Key Components of a Critical Issues Analysis

Here at Westwood, a critical issues analysis is a dynamic service developed and customized by our in-house environmental expertise. Clients gain additional benefits by bringing our experienced team into the process when determining an appropriate CIA scope best suited for their needs. Our wetland, wildlife, cultural resources, and permitting expertise highlight each CIA topic to provide valuable interpretations about the potential impacts on the site. In addition to the valuable input provided in early site evaluation and planning, the following are typical key components of the critical issues analysis:

Mapping and Data Resources

The first step in conducting a CIA is completing desktop research using multiple databases and data layers to identify the presence and extent of various risks, constraints, or impacts to the project, including wetlands and streams, topography, soils, rare species, and public lands. Additionally, federal, state, and local agencies with available data and potential jurisdiction over a site are identified and listed.

Data Evaluation and Results

Desktop data is evaluated and summarized to indicate the potential for an impact on the project. Technical experts identify risks and summarize results in wetlands, rare species, cultural resources, public lands, infrastructure, and wells. The experts then recommend additional field studies based on the results, including field wetlands delineation, wildlife habitat assessment, or hydrology studies. The resulting data supports a project layout and identifies buildable areas. By analyzing this information, developers can identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate these challenges early before it turns costly.

Regulatory Environment

In addition to analyzing environmental risks, a critical issues analysis also includes assessing local, state, and federal regulations that are likely to apply to the project area. The assessments involve researching applicable permits, zoning laws, and other regulatory requirements that may impact the project's feasibility. Developers can ensure that their project has a path through relevant laws and regulations by conducting a thorough regulatory and land use review.

Development of Risk Mitigation Strategies

Once the CIA identifies potential risks and constraints, the final step is to determine what fatal flaws exist with the project and identify what could significantly impact the development process and timeline. Developers mitigate challenges with the results of the CIA by adjusting the project layout, incorporating environmental protection measures, or working with regulatory agencies to obtain necessary permits.

The Role of Technology in Streamlining the Critical Issues Analysis

Utilizing Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) play a crucial role in a CIA. GIS provides developers with accurate and up-to-date spatial data on the project site, using it to create detailed maps, analyze potential environmental risks, and so much more. Developers can streamline the CIA and make more informed decisions about the site selection and project layout through proprietary tools like Westwood Current™, a GIS platform and CIA web map application.

Integrating Remote Sensing and Drone Technology

Remote sensing and drone technology have revolutionized developers' data collection on potential project sites. These technologies enable developers to obtain high-resolution aerial imagery, conduct detailed site surveys, and monitor environmental conditions in real-time. By integrating remote sensing and drone technology into the CIA, developers can incorporate the most up-to-date information on existing conditions,

Harnessing the Power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms have the potential to transform critical issues analyses by automating complex data analysis tasks. By leveraging AI and machine learning, developers can quickly analyze large datasets and identify patterns. This technology can help developers streamline the CIA process, reduce the risk of errors, and improve overall project efficiency.

Challenges and Future Directions in Critical Issues Analysis

Balancing Development and Environmental Protection

As the demand for new infrastructure and renewable energy projects continues to grow, striking a balance between development and environmental protection is becoming increasingly important. A CIA can play a crucial role in achieving this balance by helping developers identify potential ecological risks, navigate regulations, and support risk mitigation.

Embracing a Collaborative Approach to Critical Issues Analysis

The success of a CIA ultimately depends on the collaboration between the developer and the environmental consultants. Collaboration ensures the CIA covers the subject matter at the necessary level of detail to assess the project's environmental and land use risks effectively. For example, as soon as a CIA is requested, Westwood’s team of experts is engaged to set the project up for success. By embracing a collaborative approach, developers can ensure that their projects come to life based on the best available information across all disciplines.

Do you need a critical issues analysis?

A robust critical issues analysis is essential to the project development process, helping developers navigate complex environmental and regulatory challenges while minimizing potential risks. By incorporating advanced technologies, embracing a collaborative approach, and adapting to emerging environmental challenges, the CIA will continue to play a vital role in ensuring the successful execution of future project developments.

If you are striving to balance future development and environmental protection, our environmental team can help.

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