RCW 43.21C.030: State Environmental Policy Act

I was getting ready to jump into the next chapter of the land use code, SMC 23.52 Transportation Concurrency Project Review System, when I read this paragraph:

Construction of a new structure and/or parking lot, expansion of existing structure and/or parking lot, and/or changes of use that are categorically exempt from SEPA review under Chapter 25.05 are exempt from this chapter. Projects that are categorically exempt from SEPA review but are otherwise subject to SEPA due to their location within an environmentally critical area are exempt from this chapter.

Once again the code, in a mere two sentences, invokes a mess of reference trouble. Here’s my problem, though, I don’t totally get SEPA. I mean I understand that it’s a process to ensure some analysis, disclosure, and mitigation of environmental impacts from new development. But it appears to be a lot more complicated than that. And what’s annoying is that SEPA crops up here and there, lurking like a storm on the horizon on a sunny day. Lots of people point to the clouds but very few people explain what they mean.

Here is my hunch about SEPA. Because the law has been around for a while most developers are smart enough to hire a team of legal and technical experts to ensure they never trip the SEPA switch. That is, their projects go through SEPA but they are almost never found to have impact under SEPA. That has been my professional experience so far dealing with the code. SEPA isn’t really an issue because it sets up a line up to which a project can go; any further than that line means the project is done for.

The goal is a DNS: a determination of non-significance. “Sure, go ahead and challenge that determination NIMBYs or whoever doesn’t like my project,” a developer might say. “But my lawyers and engineers did enough work to ensure that the DNS will stand. I’ll build your hearing examiner challenge into my timetable and cost structure.” That’s fine with me, because it seems to ensure that we’ve got some limits in place to protect the environment. The question though is are those limits the right ones? Projects can happen, but are they being constrained in a way that doesn’t account for the growth we need to accommodate?

The SEPA law seems to function as a kind of slightly larger envelope into which growth has to be pushed. Some would just as well abolish it, I’m sure. Others probably see it as a paper tiger, with not nearly enough teeth and claws. The truth is that it has kind of set up limits which the development market has to live with whether it likes it or not. SEPA works but why and how?

So to go any further I need to answer few questions. If you can help, please do in the comments.

1. Who sets the threshold for SEPA? In other words, what triggers SEPA review, who decides that threshold, and how high can it be set?;

2. If much of this is local, how much leeway do local governments have in determining impacts of projects? Can a local government drive by in a pick up truck filled with consultants and say “this project has no environmental impact?”; and

3. Does SEPA set specific requirements on deciding what constitutes an impact or do they just force a process?

These are just some initial questions. What other ones should I be asking? But in a first stab at getting to some answers here’s the text of the section I mention in the title.

The legislature authorizes and directs that, to the fullest extent possible: (1) The policies, regulations, and laws of the state of Washington shall be interpreted and administered in accordance with the policies set forth in this chapter, and (2) all branches of government of this state, including state agencies, municipal and public corporations, and counties shall:

(a) Utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision making which may have an impact on the environment;

(b) Identify and develop methods and procedures, in consultation with the department of ecology and the ecological commission, which will insure that presently unquantified environmental amenities and values will be given appropriate consideration in decision making along with economic and technical considerations;

(c) Include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major actions significantly affecting the quality of the environment, a detailed statement by the responsible official on:

(i) the environmental impact of the proposed action;

(ii) any adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided should the proposal be implemented;

(iii) alternatives to the proposed action;

(iv) the relationship between local short-term uses of the environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity; and

(v) any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources which would be involved in the proposed action should it be implemented;

(d) Prior to making any detailed statement, the responsible official shall consult with and obtain the comments of any public agency which has jurisdiction by law or special expertise with respect to any environmental impact involved. Copies of such statement and the comments and views of the appropriate federal, province, state, and local agencies, which are authorized to develop and enforce environmental standards, shall be made available to the governor, the department of ecology, the ecological commission, and the public, and shall accompany the proposal through the existing agency review processes;

(e) Study, develop, and describe appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action in any proposal which involves unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources;

(f) Recognize the worldwide and long-range character of environmental problems and, where consistent with state policy, lend appropriate support to initiatives, resolutions, and programs designed to maximize international cooperation in anticipating and preventing a decline in the quality of the world environment;

(g) Make available to the federal government, other states, provinces of Canada, municipalities, institutions, and individuals, advice and information useful in restoring, maintaining, and enhancing the quality of the environment;

(h) Initiate and utilize ecological information in the planning and development of natural resource-oriented projects.

Should I be reading something else? I will also be looking at the SEPA home page. There is a handbook there that looks good. But does someone out there have some simple answers or directions to my questions?

And, um, I know there are no “simple answers.” But you know what I mean.

This entry was posted in 1. Federal, state law, or legal decisions, 2.Local change, 4. I don't understand. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to RCW 43.21C.030: State Environmental Policy Act

  1. Stephen says:

    As a planner, I hate SEPA. It is arcane and has no teeth or relevance to modern planning. I really wish APA-WA would tackle it and draw up new legislation that can tame the beast and make it work for the public in meaningful way. Of course, the Rethuglicons in the legislature would much rather get rid of any environmental review process, which there in lies the problem of it remaining a useless beast. Sigh.

  2. Pingback: Chapter 23.80 Essential Public Facilities: Seattle could push Sound Transit to the table | Seattle's Land Use Code

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