Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) is an essential set of environmental regulations. It can preserve fragile natural areas and protect communities from pollution. But in Seattle, obstructionists have been using it to thwart efforts to create compact, low-carbon neighborhoods, undermining our shared environmental goals.
One of the most powerful ways Seattle can safeguard the environment is by welcoming more homes into the city, curtailing climate pollution and sprawl. But an anti-housing minority has learned they can exploit SEPA’s appeal provisions to block rule changes that would make room for more homes, as well as to stall individual homebuilding projects — even ones aimed at helping our city’s most vulnerable residents, like the Fort Lawton project that would create 85 homes for formerly homeless seniors.
In Seattle, this kind of SEPA abuse has become all too common, worsening the city’s housing shortage and accelerating the exodus of low-income families to less expensive surrounding areas where they become trapped in costly, time-sucking, carbon-spewing mega-commutes.
That’s why Seattle City Council is currently considering some tuneups to SEPA as it applies to housing. As environmental leaders, we urge council members to adopt the smart, modest reforms in Council Bill 119600 that will help Seattle become a more fair and sustainable city.
The meatiest chunk of the proposal would let Seattle take advantage of new state rules that bar SEPA appeals of certain changes to homebuilding regulations, such as allowances for more apartments near transit stations. That’s right: all that would happen is the city could then apply a state law (HB 1923) enacted by our Legislature — the same body that created SEPA in the first place.
What difference might that make? Well, it could have prevented the two SEPA appeals that forestalled Seattle from reforming its backyard cottage rules for more than three years. All that the SEPA appellants accomplished was predatory delay that robbed residents of at least 700 modest new homes in a city with an unprecedented housing crisis.
The council’s proposal would also broaden a rule already in place for construction in Seattle’s five densest centers that exempts multidwelling buildings smaller than 200 units from review under SEPA. The legislation would extend the exemption to the rest of the city’s neighborhood centers — in fact, only reverting the rules back to how they were in 2015.
Because Seattle has its own regulations on housing that cover everything in a SEPA review and more, reinstating this exemption only eliminates a redundant review process. And that would prevent excessive SEPA appeals like the one that in 2017 stalled construction of a four-story, 57-unit apartment project on a major bus line in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood. The appellants’ main objection? Not enough parking. Yes, they co-opted environmental protection laws to force more parking into a city where cars are the single biggest source of climate pollution.
Council’s proposal would also enable the use of an existing state law that helps cities avoid repetitive SEPA studies and limit appeal hearings to 120 days — both common-sense fixes to help control the damage wrought by frivolous appeals.
Seattle officials wrote in 2015 that in urban areas “SEPA is used more often to obstruct rather than promote sustainable development.” Or as Councilmember Mike O’Brien observed, “I have never in 10 years seen an environmental group bring a [housing-related] SEPA appeal.”
We concur. SEPA has immense value for many other protections, but when it comes to urban home building, it’s too easily hijacked by anyone with a gripe and enough time and money on their hands to launch a dragged out appeal. The result: Seattle slips further behind on creating housing choices near jobs and further away from a low-carbon future.
Seattle City Council’s prudent proposal to rein in SEPA abuse is the environmentally responsible thing to do. Council members should pass it into law on Monday, Oct 7.