Why Bad Development Happens To Good Citizens
A decision by the state legislature is likely to result in more bad development. During a legislative session in Olympia distinguished by a particularly aggressive attack on environmental protection, the State Environmental Policy Act, (SEPA), took a very large hit. New interim rules (Bill 6406) went into place last month increasing the threshold levels for specific types of development necessary to trigger a SEPA review. These threshold levels are referred to as “categorical exemptions.” Higher limits for categorical exemptions reduce environmental review. These changes apply to private and municipal development projects.
Bellingham Municipal Code exempts development of nine or fewer residential units from SEPA review. Under interim changes now in effect under operation of state law, Bellingham’s categorical exemption for residential units doubled to 20 units. New exemption limits for building construction also more than doubled, from 5,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet, regardless of location, (i.e., think wetlands, habitat conservation areas, impaired watersheds, etc.)
The alleged justification for the political attack on SEPA was that improved municipal regulations have reduced the need for SEPA, and therefore, increasing categorical exemptions streamlines regulatory processes. Apparently, this was convincing to the Bellingham Planning and Public Works Department, which repeated these flawed arguments during an information session before the Bellingham City Council on Monday.
SEPA was never intended to supplement gaps in environmental regulation. Rather, municipal regulations and SEPA were intended to work hand in hand. SEPA examines whether municipal regulations, enacted and applied on a broad scale, are adequate when applied to “this” particular project on “this” particular site. SEPA provides municipalities with authority to impose greater mitigation standards when necessary, on a site specific basis.
A crucial component of SEPA is public notice and disclosure. SEPA provides early notice of a development application and discloses the potential environmental impacts in the SEPA checklist and consultant reports required under the SEPA process. SEPA provides an opportunity for early public comment, and sometimes provides a separate right to public hearing.
Under SEPA mitigation sequencing, a proposed development must first be reviewed to determine if environmental impacts can be avoided. In other words, proper application of SEPA rules should result in redesign, re-siting or, when appropriate, in denial of the development proposal when it is determined that impacts can be avoided. That is why DOE recently advised Costco it must establish the necessity for a new store before it infills acres of wetlands.
For now, SEPA environmental review and public process rights will apply to fewer development applications. At the end of the year, the interim categorical exemptions will be replaced with final rules determined by the Department of Ecology. At that time, and everything is in flux and subject to change, the city will need to decide whether to keep the exemption levels currently reflected in city code, or adopt increased categorical exemptions on a permanent basis.
SEPA and categorical exemptions are “wonky,” boring subjects, and therefore, unlikely to generate much public interest or comment. This is unfortunate, because, as informed Northwest Citizen readers understand, environmental review, mitigation and public process are the very heart and soul of efforts to protect our natural resources and quality of life. Please tell the council and the mayor that you do not want to see increases in SEPA categorical exemptions.