SEPA reform bill voted out of committee

This afternoon, the City Council voted out of committee a controversial bill making several changes to the SEPA appeal process, after making a handful of mostly minor amendments.

The bill makes several changes to how SEPA works at the local level. Land use projects in Seattle are still subject to state SEPA rules, but in some cases Seattle’s rules have been stricter. Many have argued that the stricter rules have been weaponized by activists and neighborhood groups (at least those with monetary resources to pay  attorneys) in order to block or delay projects.

The ordinance makes several changes to SEPA:

  • It provides for categorical exemptions from SEPA analysis for several classes of land use actions. Those include zoning changes in areas near frequent transit service and (for a limited period of time) zoning changes to single-family zones to allow a wider range of housing types; projects that are consistent with the Comprehensive  Plan and were studied as part of the SEPA review when adopted into the Comprehensive Plan; and residential projects up to a certain size with less than 40 parking spaces. These changes align the city’s SEPA requirements with state law, including legislation passed earlier this year specifically attempting to de-weaponize SEPA and allow cities to build to match their growth.
  • It provides timelines for Hearing Examiner appeals to complete.
  • It requires SDCI to develop rules to help guide the development of environmental documents based on best practices.
  • It clarifies that since state law doesn’t require economic analysis as part of a SEPA review, if economic analysis is included in a SEPA review, the results (i.e. that part of the SEPA analysis) are not subject to appeal.
  • It removes a section of the SEPA rules related to timing of the issuance of permits, because it conflicts with the timing rules in the land use code. The land use code rules (SMC 23.76.028(c)) will still exist and be in force, which specify that all city-level appeals (but not appeals to the courts) must be resolved before a permit can be issued.
  • It explicitly clarifies that the city’s legislative department may be the lead agency on SEPA analysis of proposals, or it may request another city department to act as lead agency.

Not surprisingly, the activists and neighborhood groups who have been most frequently filing SEPA appeals are staunchly opposed to this bill, and argue that the city is gutting an important avenue for residents to challenge runaway development. A bit more suprisingly, however, is that both former Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter and current Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil have voiced concerns, specifically about imposing timelines for appeals in front of the Hearing Examiner. Vancil sent a letter to the Council this week explaining his perspective, and arguing that the imposition of timelines is more appropriately done through rulemaking in the Hearing Examiner’s office than by ordinance.

Hunter and Vancil found a sympathetic ear in Council member Lisa Herbold, who today expressed her own concerns that the Council hasn’t done the homework to truly understand what portion of SEPA appeals have actually improved the resultant land-use actions, and what portion have simply delayed the inevitable.

On the other hand, Council member Mike O’Brien is a firm believer that SEPA has been weaponized by well-funded neighborhood groups to block needed development, and he pointed to several recent examples, including the MHA legislation, the ADU ordinance, Ft. Lawton, the Burke-Gilman Trail “missing link,” and most recently Transportation Impact Fees.  He also notes that SEPA has rarely (if ever) been used by low-income communities to appeal development projects, pointing to the reality on the ground that SEPA appeals are not in practice a tool available equally to all residents of the city. Unlike Vancil who thinks that the spike in SEPA appeals in 2018 was an anomaly, O’Brien believes that it’s the “new normal” and supports the SEPA reform bill to try to curb it.

Length of days for SEPA appeals from filing to decision. Source: City of Seattle

O’Brien and Council member Abel Pacheco, the two co-sponsors of the bill, also note that even the land-use actions granted a categorical exemption from SEPA review are still subject to a multitude of environmental regulations (see the table in this memo).  They argue that those are cases where instead of using the SEPA process to inform policy decisions about the impacts of a particular action, the city has already codified in regulations what the acceptable level of impact is.

The one substantive amendment adopted today decreases the required timeline for project actions and Master Use Permits to 90 days (from 120), with a possible extension by 30 days at the Hearing Examiner’s discretion. Both Herbold and Pacheco, however, are continuing to work on additional amendments.

The amended bill was voted out of committee by a vote of  2-0, with Herbold abstaining. It will come before the full Council for final approval on October 7th, and likely see more amendments before a vote is taken.

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