Proposed Procedures for Nonproject Environmental Review

The Integration Model for Environmental Analysis with Planning Process

The Department of Ecology (Ecology) is initiating changes to the environmental review process of nonproject actions under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The amendments will put into place an environmental analysis tool to streamline SEPA compliance requirements for all nonproject actions, i.e. adoption or amendments of regulations, policies, plans, and programs. The SEPA Rules, Chapter 197-11 WAC, will be amended to include regulatory language on the purpose and implementation of the new environmental review process and the Nonproject Review Form, which will be replace use of the existing Checklist for Nonproject actions. As part of this effort, the new form and process were tested under the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act.

Objectives

In developing the Nonproject procedures the following objectives were identified that complement both the problem and opportunity. Additionally, these objectives are consistent with both the intent of the State Environmental Policy Act (RCW 43.21C) as well as the existing State’s implementing rules.

  1. Provide decision makers with a clear understanding of the environmental impacts prior to a decision
  2. Many decisions are made during the development of a nonproject proposal. Environmental impact analysis is most effective when applied at each key decision point forming the proposal. Once the proposal is drafted, there is momentum to accept it and reluctance to make significant alterations. In addition, once the proposal is formulated, impact analysis is generally only of the proposal, not of the choices that were available or considered as the proposal was developed. Integrating environmental review with the development of the proposal allows full consideration of key issues, alternative solutions, and environmental consequences.

  3. Assist decision makers in understanding the connection between nonproject decisions and future on-the-ground impacts
  4. It can be difficult to associate a rule or policy with on-the-ground activities and their impacts. A rule or policy will ultimately affect an on-the-ground activity by either allowing it, allowing it with restrictions, or prohibiting it. Using environmental review effectively at the planning stage allows the identification and avoidance, or other mitigative measure, of future project impacts—particularly cumulative impacts that become significant when viewed at the landscape or watershed scale.

  5. Assist decision makers to identify and understand the environmental tradeoffs for decisions that are being made and will not be revisited at a later date
  6. Agencies make decisions/commitments at the nonproject level that the agency will apply at the permitting stage. At the nonproject phase, environmental analysis entails—at minimum—the impacts from decisions that are being made, including the loss of future options that will be foreclosed by those decisions.

  7. Narrow the scope of environmental review and mitigation under SEPA at the project level

Environmental review conducted at the nonproject stage provides the opportunity to minimize environmental review at the project stage. Analysis can include possible project impacts that may or may not occur with each project. This kind of analysis allows for the identification of mitigation that can be used for later project actions. It provides:

  • Environmental information to help identify possible areas of concern during project development;
  • Opportunity for consistent handling of environmental issues;
  • Quicker environmental analysis at the project stage; and
  • Predictability for applicants and citizens alike.
  1. Provide public, agency, and tribal review and comment prior to adopting a nonproject action

A key element of the SEPA process has always been to encourage involvement of the public, tribes, and other agencies in the environmental review of agency decision regarding both project and nonproject actions.

Why Are Changes Needed?

The process and methods for conducting nonproject environmental analysis are widely recognized as being severely deficient in both requiring environmental values to be considered in decision making, as well as the types of information required. This is largely because the existing form and process follow a project model, i.e. they are designed for specific projects primarily being proposed by non-governmental applicants. Among the problems as they relate to nonproject actions are:

  • The existing tool used to make a threshold determination for most nonproject proposals is the project environmental checklist plus a supplemental sheet for nonproject actions. There appears to be a universal opinion that the existing checklist does not work well for nonproject proposals. A common comment from planners and others when asked about how they use the checklist is; "We simply write ‘N.A.’ (not applicable) for most or all of the questions about impacts to the environment."
  • Many lead agencies conducting environmental analysis under SEPA do not begin the analysis until a draft plan or policy is prepared. By this time, interested parties have bought into the draft, compromises have been made, and unless the environmental impacts are egregious, significant changes are difficult or impossible. Thus SEPA becomes an "add-on" that results in added costs and delay with few environmental improvements.

There is an opportunity to remedy these problems by implementing better processes, procedures, and guidance that will meaningfully incorporate the consideration of environmental values, impacts and alternative analysis into the decision making process.

The primary changes being proposed are:

  • Require that the environmental review process occur concurrently with the planning process
  • Use of a new form geared to nonproject actions
  • Delaying a threshold determination until sufficient analysis has occurred to ensure a proper determination

Milestones

  • Fall/ Winter 2001/2002 – Proposed Rule (filing CR-102)
  • Public Hearings/Commenting Period
  • Responsiveness Summary

Winter/Spring 2002 – Adoption of Rule Amendments (filing CR-103)

  • Workshops
  • One-on-One Briefings
  • OCD/CTED GMA Workshops

Summer/Fall 2002 – Required Use (180 days after filing of the CR-103)