The City Council passed legislation Monday that supporters say will speed up environmental reviews for some major policies and projects needed to make Seattle more sustainable, such as denser zoning and large apartment buildings.
Councilmembers Abel Pacheco and Mike O’Brien sponsored the legislation, and the vote was 8-0, with Councilmember M. Lorena González absent.
Representatives of urbanist environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and 350 Seattle asked the council to adopt the changes, arguing that neighborhood opponents have time and again misused State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeals to obstruct policies and projects related to smart urban growth.
They cited appeals that have slowed attempts by City Hall to complete the Burke-Gilman Trail, build low-income housing at Fort Lawton, upzone neighborhood hubs with low-income housing requirements, ease rules on backyard cottages and regulate Airbnb rentals. SEPA appeals have been “weaponized in ways never intended,” worsening sprawl and car pollution, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said.
Some Seattle residents urged the council to study the issue more and to preserve existing avenues for appealing development policies and projects that can lead to lost light and trees and to displacement.
“Appeals are not always frivolous,” said Megan Kruse, worried about new towers planned near the historic downtown building where she lives.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said both sides were exaggerating. “I don’t think it’s going to so limit SEPA appeals,” the council member said, “as some people fear and … as some other people are hoping.”
Under Monday’s legislation, Seattle will until at least 2021 ban SEPA appeals of certain land-use policies, such as upzoning around transit stations and allowing duplexes and triplexes on blocks now reserved for single-family houses. Those policies will still need to undergo environmental review.
The city will limit new SEPA appeal hearings to 120 days, unless both sides agree to extend them, and appeals based on economic impacts will be barred. Further, Seattle will in certain instances make apartment-building projects with more than 200 units and 12,000 square feet exempt from SEPA appeals.
The legislation “streamlines” the environmental review process, Pacheco said.
The council rejected a Herbold amendment to allowed SEPA appeals of downtown apartment projects with a large number of parking stalls. Pacheco and O’Brien said the council should act separately to cap parking rather than allow such appeals.