Ecology Department seeks comment on SEPA exemption changes

The Washington Department of Ecology is seeking public comment on a draft rule to increase the flexible thresholds local governments can adopt to exempt minor new construction projects from review under the State Environmental Policy Act.

The department will hold two public hearings for the proposed rule on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., at the department’s headquarters building at 300 Desmond Drive in Lacey, Wash.

Each hearing will include a presentation, a Q-and-A period and time for formal public comments.

SEPA was enacted in 1971 to help agencies identify possible environmental impacts that could result from governmental decisions such as issuing permits for private projects, constructing public facilities, or adopting regulations, policies or plans.

The environmental review law applies to decisions by every state and local agency in Washington including state agencies, cities, counties, ports and special districts such as school and water districts.

Every year, state and local agencies across the state use SEPA to evaluate about 6,000 proposed decisions. Information learned through the review process can be used to change a proposal to reduce likely impacts, or to condition or deny a proposal when adverse environmental impacts are identified.

SEPA also gives local governments the option to allow some minor construction projects, depending on their size and scale, to be exempt from review. These include:

– Small-scale residential housing developments.

– Office, school and commercial buildings with adjoining parking lots under a certain size.

– Agricultural structures within a specific square footage.

– Minor landfill and excavation activities.

To comply with a new law passed by the 2012 Washington Legislature and approved by Gov. Chris Gregoire, the ecology department is seeking to increase the size and scale thresholds for building projects local governments can choose to be exempt from SEPA review.

Under the draft rule, these exemption levels would vary depending whether a proposed project would be located in a city, unincorporated areas inside an urban growth area, or in a county that is or is not planning under the state Growth Management Act.

For example, the proposed rule would give local governments the option to select the exempt threshold for single-family housing developments from between four to up to 30 units. For multi-family buildings, local governments could select from four to up to 60 units as the exempt level while the threshold for minor agricultural construction projects could be between 10,000 to 40,000 square feet.

Besides increasing the flexible thresholds for minor construction projects, the draft rule would expand the exemption threshold for electrical utilities from 55,000 to 115,000 volts in existing rights-of-way and developed utility corridors.

The proposed rule also is designed to make the SEPA checklist more efficient. Proponents for projects not exempt from SEPA review must fill out an environmental checklist that asks questions about the proposal and its potential impacts on earth, air, water, plants, animals, energy, environmental health, land use, transportation, public services and utilities.

The draft rule would allow SEPA checklists to be submitted to lead state and local agencies electronically. The rule would also allow state and local agencies to skip irrelevant project checklist questions when considering changes to plans, programs or policies

To assist in updating the SEPA rule, the ecology department formed a special advisory committee made up of members representing cities and counties, agricultural, business, cultural and environmental interests, tribal governments and state agencies.

More information about the committee is available at

The public comment period for the proposed rule is open until Dec. 11, 2012.

Written comments and questions regarding the proposed rule can be submitted by mail to Department of Ecology, P.O. Box 47703, Olympia, WA 98504 7600, by email to or faxed to 360-407-6904.

For specific comments or questions about the draft SEPA rule, contact Fran Sant at or 360-407-6932.

In 2013, the ecology department will conduct a second, broader round of SEPA rule revisions.

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