Only in Seattle would the council and mayor introduce legislation for a local Green New Deal alongside a bill aimed at dismantling State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) protections. It’s happening now on a fast track.
SEPA is the state’s benchmark review process that gauges how proposed development will impact the natural and built environments. It’s the public’s guarantee that shared resources of light, air, water and safe access will be studied and protected. Its findings are used to avoid or reduce probable impacts.
Council bill 119600 boldly claims SEPA review is largely unnecessary and can be largely supplanted by the city’s codes and design review. The bill eliminates SEPA challenges based on transportation impacts and would weaken and limit Seattle’s project review standards and the ability to appeal decisions.
The bill was spurred by council and special interest groups’ irritation with the number of projects appealed to the city’s hearing examiner. At the August Planning, Land Use & Zoning Committee meeting, council members said they acted on complaints from affordable housing advocates who said appeals were obstructing the creation of new housing.
To grasp how opposing environmental impacts is a threat to affordable housing, you need to understand Seattle’s “Grand Bargain.” Deftly negotiated, the agreement allows project developers to pay affordable housing fees instead of building affordable housing. This option creates added incentive to expedite permits in order for the city to receive those fees.
Rather than consider if recent appeals had merit or were signs of an inequitable system, the progressive council doubled down by introducing a bill that relaxes environmental standards and independent review. It seems being a Green City is a priority unless it interferes with new development and sources of revenue.
The council bill’s wide-ranging changes extend to Seattle Municipal Code, design review and the appeals process, including:
- Authorizing the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections director to unilaterally set rules for SEPA analysis. SDCI works closely with developers and its interpretations often reflect this. Uniform rules for SEPA analysis are a good idea but should include input from all relevant city departments and community stakeholders. Anything less perpetuates the same closed feedback loop insulated from due process.
- Tasking volunteer neighborhood design review boards to address SEPA thresholds for land use, height, bulk and scale and various light impacts. Design guidelines already require review of these key elements but in recent years design review boards have avoided mitigations with even slight economic implications for developers. Consigning SEPA judgments to the working architects and developers who comprise these boards puts undue pressure on them and lacks independent rigor.
- Increasing the size of projects exempt from threshold determinations and EIS requirements. In downtown Seattle these provisions will extend to mixed-use towers with up to 250 residential units and an unlimited number of parking stalls. A typical 400- to 500-foot residential tower generates 1,000 new single occupancy vehicle trips daily despite being surrounded by multi-modal options. That’s a major retreat from Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan that says cars are the city’s major source of carbon emissions.
The reality is Seattle needs sustainable density, and developers and community stakeholders need consistent, predictable and equitable rules.
One thing this bill gets right is the need to address SEPA issues at the beginning of a project, not after plans are set. Coupled with new Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections rules that reflect broad stakeholders’ interests, the right bill would save everyone time, money and frustration.
Unfortunately, like the Grand Bargain, CB 119600 is one-sided legislation crafted by the city with select input.
Almost as bad, its proponents take a page from national politics by dividing Seattleites into camps for or against affordable housing. And as we’ve seen nationally, the bill dispenses with existing environmental protections in favor of economic gain.
In its waning months this council shouldn’t dictate sweeping environmental policy to protect its legacy and that of special interests. We shouldn’t be told to choose between affordable housing and strong environmental protections. Something is wrong with a system that can’t offer both.
Before unraveling the SEPA safety net the city needs to provide solid data and solicit multiple perspectives. Appeals are the direct result of uninformed policies and closed-door bargaining.
Let’s see legislation that doesn’t invite challenges because it protects existing stakeholders and delivers sustainable and equitable development.
Ask Mayor Jenny Durkan and council members to table CB 119600. Seattle deserves better.