This Washington

Bill to Expand Exemptions to Environmental Review Passes Almost Unopposed

By Erica C. Barnett March 7, 2011

In addition to the three anti-enviro bills we wrote about this morning---one that would let cities and counties delay the Growth Management Act,  another that would let some counties opt out the Growth Management Act; and another to let developers put off paying impact fees---another bill that was initially opposed by environmentalists passed the state House this weekend, this one with only two representatives opposed.

The legislation would greatly expand the number of situations in which developments inside Urban Growth Areas (like Seattle's) do not have to go through environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act.

Originally, the bill was introduced by the Association of Washington Businesses and the Associations of Cities and Counties, which argued that SEPA was too burdensome for developers, given the current economic downturn. However, some environmental groups that initially opposed the bill eventually came around to supporting it, after the size of projects that were exempt from SEPA was narrowed substantially and the bill was amended to require the state department of ecology to come up with a new rationale for exemptions from SEPA by 2013.

"We said, we're not opposed to having an thoughtful discussion about these issues, but we don't want to do it in the crucible of the [legislative] session," says People for Puget Sound lobbyist Bruce Wishart. "So we said there needs to be a clear, thorough rules-making process outside the legislature."

One of the few who didn't come around to supporting the bill was freshman legislator Cindy Ryu (D-32), who (along with fellow freshman Rep. David Frockt, D-46) was one of just two house members to vote against it. In an email to PubliCola, Ryu explained her position.

The bill, Ryu wrote,
increases the SEPA threshold to all but the most massive projects in Urban Growth Areas.  Effectively, it means, for cities like Shoreline, that there will be no SEPA reviews of any new residential projects unless there are 50 or more units proposed. [...]

An Urban Growth Area is not a free-for-all zone, and there are plenty of environmentally critical areas within UGAs. [...]

As a community member and a former city council member and Mayor, I know SEPA reviews are very much appreciated by neighbors who would take most of the impacts of a proposed project.  Frankly, I think SEPA reviews lead to much better projects so that new neighbors, if not embraced, will be much more welcomed than without a robust community discussion of the impacts.
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