New SEPA Rules and More on the Horizon

Infill Project

Infill projects, like this new commercial property, will benefit from relaxed permitting requirements under the revised SEPA rules.

At 42 years old, Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) needed a little makeover. It’s had nips and tucks (okay, amendments) before, but the most recent changes became effective on January 28. A little background: SEPA was put in place to help get agencies, applicants, and the public through a formal review of development projects—and the effects they might have—before government actions happen. Actions like construction permits, or adoption of regulations, plans, or policies.

Some highlights:

  • Streamlined regulatory processes make the program more efficient, while continuing to protect the state’s natural resources.
  • Process and documentation changes are better aligned with current technology.
  • Changes in the list of actions (and respective thresholds) that are categorically exempt from certain compliance requirements.
  • A useful table that better defines flexible thresholds for certain types of minor new construction in and outside of counties that use the Growth Management Act.
  • An electronic version of the environmental checklist form for disclosing and characterizing a proposal’s key features and for describing anticipated impacts and mitigation commitments.

What effect will these changes have on developers and communities? The elevated exemption thresholds will tend to increase the number of urban projects. For developers, this should mean less of a regulatory process, more predictability for project planning, reduced development costs, and shorter project timelines. Ultimately, this could make more affordable housing available, subject to market forces and demand.

While such benefits are encouraging, it’s important that the exemption thresholds don’t compromise key objectives of SEPA that ensure meaningful public review, project disclosure, informed decision-making, and protection of the natural and built environments. Existing regulations and reviews by various levels of government involving land use approvals, construction permit authorizations, and resource oversight and protection should continue to ensure that project-related impacts are properly considered and mitigated, and that meaningful public disclosure and input opportunities are maintained.

More comprehensive changes are scheduled to happen by December 31, 2013.

Details of the January 28 changes here.