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‘It’s rooted in the 1970s-era conception of environmentalism’ — Seattle looks to rein in state policy used to push back on big projects and developments

(Image: CHS)

To rise above Capitol Hill, the Bullitt Center, the world’s first super-green “living” office building, faced a nearly unbelievable fight. Owners of a neighboring building used the State’s Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to fight against the structure’s vital solar array and, even more audaciously, tried to force the net zero waste building to provide more parking. They lost — but not before lengthy, costly delays.

There is another story.

Redeveloping Magnolia’s Fort Lawton was first floated in 2005 and the possibility remained a tension point in the community for over a decade as the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to move forward on a major affordable housing project at the old Army Reserve Center site earlier this year.

Slowed by lawsuits and the Great Recession more than a decade ago, the project was met with opposition from some saying that green space needed to be preserved over housing and others talking about the effects of bringing low-income housing to the affluent neighborhood.

Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell and others were first able to halt the project in 2009 with a legal challenge against the City of Seattle claiming there were several technical violations of the law in the plan. Both the King County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals took Campbell’s side.

When the city came back with a similar plan two years ago, Campbell and the Discovery Park Community Alliance were back to sue once again.

“This is the way to tackle the City. You need a lawyer and a litigation plan – you need to go guerrilla,” Campbell told the Magnolia Voice in 2017. “To me it’s like a war. You use the tools you have available. This city knows they can ignore the people because no one will come after them legally. I’m for taking a hard stand with the city.”

While the Fort Lawton redevelopment is finally moving forward, its saga is one of many examples cited by advocates of a new measure moving through the Seattle City Council to reform the use of SEPA in Seattle that aims to minimize these sorts of long and winding appeals that delay what they see as much-needed development.

UPDATE 4:55 PM: The council has approved the legislation 8-0.

“When our collective house is on fire, having a reasonable timeline for when someone contests our right to build affordable and climate-friendly housing is really a problem,” said Alice Lockhart of 350 Seattle, a climate-justice organization.

(Image: CHS)

The Federal National Environmental Policy Act was adopted in 1969, followed by 20 states that passed their own versions to require analysis of the environmental impacts of government decisions. Only five of those state laws apply to local jurisdictions and only one of those five allows for appeals to the local hearing examiner, according to a legislative analysis. That state is Washington.

Washington’s SEPA, passed in 1971, has come under fire from reform supporters who see it as an outdated form of environmental protection.

“It’s rooted in the 1970s-era conception of environmentalism,” said Jesse Simpson of the Capitol Hill Renters Initiative. “It’s focused on, like, parking as an environmental good that it seeks to protect. It was drafted in a time where we weren’t considering climate change.”

The bill, which even some supporters say is only a relatively modest step forward, allows the city to align itself with legislation passed at the state level earlier this year to exempt — until April 2021 — some projects from SEPA appeals, the mechanism utilized by Campbell to stop the Fort Lawton development. For instance, appeals on transit-oriented development as well as duplexes, triplexes, or courtyard apartments on lots previously zoned for single-family houses only would be banned.

Those types of projects would not be completely out of the woods; they would still need to withstand environmental review, but would not be subject to appeals.

The Seattle Times Editorial Board called on the council to “reject this faux-environmental policy” last month.

“They must resist the siren song of developer-friendly think tanks, telling tales of how the earth will be saved by bulldozing houses, cutting trees and replacing them with big apartments,” the board wrote.

SEPA appeals have been used in cases ranging from the completion of the Burke-Gilman Trail to upzoning and the easing of restrictions on backyard cottages. Advocates of the change argue that for far too long the SEPA appeals process has been restricted to wealthy homeowners who have the money to see their challenges through despite exorbitant legal costs.

The measure, spearheaded by council members Abel Pacheco and Mike O’Brien, would also add a 120-day limit on the length of these SEPA appeals in front of the Hearing Examiner.

“For too long, SEPA, a well-intended tool originally designed to protect our environment, has been used to delay policies and projects that are desperately needed to address our joint climate and housing crises,” Pacheco said in an early August statement.

That being said, the process could be extended to 150 days if all parties involved are notified or even longer if they all agree. Some additional aspects of the environmental reviews, such as analysis of economic issues, would not be subject to appeal.

In a September letter to the council previously reported by SCC Insight, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil called the proposed timeline “a blunt tool to address Council desires to ensure efficiency in the SEPA appeal process.”

“Under most circumstances 120 days is too much time, and for those cases that take longer it is my experience that it is all parties needing more time to complete the hearing process, and not just appellants, because such cases simply need more time,” Vancil wrote.

He argued that the SEPA delays on Mandatory Housing Affordability, the Burke Gilman Trail, and Fort Lawton were due more to his office’s unusually high caseload. For example, he wrote that the Fort Lawton hearing was delayed “most significantly because it originally required four

days to complete, and the hearing schedule could not accommodate four days because of the

MHA hearing schedule and other already scheduled hearings.”

Vancil believes that it would be better to place the proposed timelines in rules for the hearing examiner rather than a city ordinance.

Campbell is opposed to the reform that would restrict her ability to utilize SEPA appeals in the future.

“It’s just part of the city’s ongoing efforts that they’re using to eliminate any kind of, I suppose, scrutiny or review of what it is that they’re doing in terms of land use,” Campbell told CHS. She added: “They just go off and do what they want to do.”

The bill, which passed out of the Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee 2-0 with Council member Lisa Herbold abstaining, is planned for an October 7th full council vote. Supporters are confident that the legislation will pass and open the door for further change.

“SEPA reform is something that will enable us to enact bigger policy reforms faster which will help people at a large scale,” Tech 4 Housing’s Executive Director Calvin Jones told CHS.

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1 year ago

The vital solar array is costing the rest of us to subsidize the production incentives that the state provide – almost all of city light is hydro, it’s basically a big green badge to have solar with little real value

1 year ago
Reply to  Nope

Two questions for you: One, as the population in Seattle (dramatically) increases, how will hydropower keep up? Two, as dams are removed to restore salmon habitat, what will take the place of the “clean” power generated by them? Genuinely want to hear a response.

1 year ago
Reply to  Tom

Aside from electric cars, we are using less power – indeed city light is increasing costs to cover the usage reduction. If solar is not viable at 13c kWh then artificially paying 50c kWh by taxing everyone else is not really a solution. Perhaps we should look at wind power along our coast ?

See pg3.

Anonymous Architect
1 year ago

Our city is overburdened with process. It is one of the major factors that is creating the housing shortage and a factor in housing affordability.

We waste so much time and money with SEPA, Design Reviews, and Permitting that if we really wanted to solve our housing crisis, we’d look into fixing these issues.

Also, Design Review hasn’t made any building any better….so why have it?

1 year ago

Design review is literally just there to decrease litigation – wealthy ass people in this city love their lawyers.

1 year ago

Yes, I’m sure that getting rid of environmental reviews and permits will reduce rent so that $15/hr wage earners can afford an apt. in the city. We are sure to see thousands and thousands of these very affordable units anytime now.

1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron

Aaron – It now costs 450 to 475k to build the typical 650 sf unit in a 5 over 2 podium building in Seattle. It will never be affordable when the cost (with zero profit) is that high. Sorry.