From the Association of Washington Cities Legislative Bulletin for July 13, 2012.
A major priority for AWC in the last legislative session was achieving reforms to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to help modernize this environmental review statute and make it work better for cities. SB 6406 passed during the special session and included many reforms to SEPA that took effect on July 10. Provisions of SEPA reform include:
Flexible exemption thresholds for minor new construction projects: Certain minor projects are exempted from SEPA review because they will not cause any significant environmental impact. Cities have had the authority to pass an ordinance to extend this exemption to certain larger development activities within a range set by state WAC. SB 6406 requires Ecology to update the rules to increase the ranges of activities that are exempted from SEPA review. Until that rulemaking is completed, the bill provides the authority to cities to utilize the highest optional threshold without having to pass an ordinance and provides a mechanism for cities to go back down to the lower levels if they desire.
Non-project actions exempt from SEPA review: One item that we heard loud and clear from our cities was a concern that SEPA review was not adding value to certain minor administrative code changes. Today a number of administrative actions are now categorically exempted from SEPA review, which should provide immediate cost- and time-savings to cities. The following local ordinances are exempt from SEPA review: (emphasis added)
- Development regulations required to ensure consistency with an adopted comprehensive plan or shoreline master program.
- Amendments to development regulations that will provide increased environmental protection, and include one of the following:
- Increased protections for critical areas, such as enhanced buffers or setbacks;
- Increased vegetation retention or decreased impervious surface areas in shoreline jurisdiction; and
- Increased vegetation retention or decreased impervious surface areas in critical areas.
- Amendments to building, energy, and electrical codes adopted to ensure consistency with minimum standards contained in state law.
SEPA Checklist flexibility: Formerly SEPA required a city to use the standard SEPA checklist as written and did not provide the flexibility to tailor it to local circumstances. New authority is provided for cities to “pre-answer” questions on the SEPA checklist. For instance, cities may provide applicants information regarding how existing regulations cover certain questions that are asked on the checklist. This will give cities a tool to help mom-and-pop applicants through the permitting process, reduce redundancy, and make sure that the checklist focuses attention on the unique aspects of a project.The bill has several specific conditions regarding implementation of this new flexibility.
Enhancements to planned action authority: The types of development that may qualify as a planned action are expanded to include essential public facilities associated with a residential, office, school, commercial, recreational, service, or industrial development, and planned actions are authorized to cover a full jurisdiction. Public notice and hearing requirements are specified and should be reviewed by cities proposing new planned actions.
Infill exemption: The “infill” authority allows jurisdictions to set new categorical exemption thresholds for certain types of development in order to fill in urban growth areas where current density is lower than called for in the comprehensive plan. Formerly, the types of development eligible for the exemption were residential and mixed use (residential along with other uses, such as commercial). SB 6406 expands this authority to include commercial-only development up to 65,000 sq. feet (this cannot include retail development).The bill also provides that the required environmental impact statement (EIS) can be done on a sub-area rather than the old requirement that the entire comprehensive plan have been subjected to an EIS.