Some Seattle City Council members, spurred on by urbanist advocacy groups, want to speed up environmental reviews for some major projects and policies, such as those for bike paths and denser housing.
They say opponents have time and again misused the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process to obstruct projects and policies meant to make life in Seattle more sustainable.
Council members Mike O’Brien and Abel Pacheco have introduced legislation that would alter the process, triggering some debate between those who say land-use changes are desperately needed to combat the climate crisis and those who say caution is needed to guard against overdevelopment.
Lengthy environmental-review appeals, O’Brien and Pacheco say, have recently slowed for months or even years attempts by City Hall to complete the Burke-Gilman Trail, build low-income housing at Fort Lawton, upzone neighborhoods hubs while requiring developers to help with low-income housing and ease restrictions on backyard cottages.
Foes also have used the review process to win special deals. For instance, a businessman had his Airbnb hotel carved out of Seattle’s new short term-rental restrictions in 2017 when he agreed to drop his appeal.
“For too long,” Pacheco said in a statement last month, the review process “has been used to delay policies and projects that are desperately needed to address our joint climate and housing crises.”
“SEPA should not be a tool used to prevent dense, environmentally friendly development and walkable, livable neighborhoods,” he said.
Not everyone is on board with the proposal. Some public commenters at a council committee meeting last month warned the adjustments would weaken the review process, allowing City Hall and real-estate developers to steamroll concerned community members.
David Ward, a Ravenna activist who helped lead a mostly unsuccessful appeal against Seattle’s recently approved neighborhood upzones, described the proposal as an “outrageous gutting” of the environmental-review process. Ward said the new process would “make developers ecstatic.”
Another committee discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, and the council could adopt the legislation as soon as October.
The O’Brien and Pacheco legislation would align Seattle law with state law. The Legislature earlier this year gave cities the choice to ban — until at least April 2021 — SEPA appeals of certain major land-use changes, such as upzoning areas around transit stations and allowing duplexes, triplexes and courtyard apartments on lots previously reserved for single-family houses.
Those changes would still need to undergo some environmental review but their reviews would no longer be subject to appeal.
For example, Seattle could upzone University Way Northeast and the area around the planned Northeast 130th Street light-rail station without having to be worried about an environmental review being appealed.
Individual bike-lane projects on existing streets already may be exempt from environmental review in the city.
Alice Lockhart with the climate-justice organization 350 Seattle said SEPA appeals have been used to “preserve a climate-destroying status quo” and urged the council to pass the legislation.
Rick McLaughlin, owner of Big Time Brewery on The Ave, urged the council not to “take away the voice of the people.”
Washington cities can choose to stick with their own SEPA rules when state law is loosened or adopt such changes.
The legislation also would limit SEPA appeal hearings to 120 days, and nonmandatory subjects covered in environmental reviews would not be subject to appeal. For example, a review of a proposed upzoning could analyze possible impacts on small-business owners but that analysis could not be appealed.
To resolve appeals quickly, the city might need to spend extra money on help for the Seattle Hearing Examiner, who oversees such cases.
A SEPA appeal brought against Seattle’s Fort Lawton plan by Magnolia resident Elizabeth Campbell illustrated how cases can drag on. It was postponed at one point because Campbell went on a vacation to Europe.
Under the legislation, apartment-building projects with more than 200 units and 12,000 square feet would in some instances be exempt from appeals.
Usually, attempts to loosen environmental protections are rightly protested by green-minded activists, O’Brien acknowledged. But the SEPA process isn’t being used the right way, he said.
“I have never in 10 years (on the council) seen an environmental group” bring a SEPA appeal, O’Brien said, attributing such appeals instead to “not-in-my-backyard” obstructionists with the time to track land-use policy and the money needed to hire specialist attorneys.
“Technically, this (process) is equally available, no matter race, color or income,” he added. “In reality … some are much more likely to make these appeals … The way it plays out is very inequitable.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect Seattle’s policy on environmental review for bike-lane projects.