SEPA Guide for Project Applicants
Table of Contents
The State Environmental Policy Act ("SEPA", Chapter 43.21C RCW) was adopted in 1971 to ensure that environmental values were considered during decision-making by state and local agencies.
The environmental review process in SEPA is designed to work with other regulations to provide a comprehensive review of a proposal. Most regulations focus on particular aspects of a proposal, while SEPA requires the identification and evaluation of probable impacts to all elements of the built and natural environment. Combining the review processes of SEPA and other laws reduces duplication and delay by combining study needs; combining comment periods and public notices; and allowing agencies, applicants, and the public to consider all aspects of a proposal at the same time.
This guide is meant to provide a general overview of the SEPA process for project applicants, including guidance in completing the environmental checklist. We understand that first experiences with unfamiliar processes are often frustrating. It is our hope to make the SEPA process as simple and understandable as possible for you.
As we discuss the SEPA process and your part in it, you may find it helpful to look over and refer to the SEPA Review Process flow chart. You will also find a Glossary to help you with unfamiliar terms. If after reading through the guide, you have any questions, #contactnumbers and Additional Resources are also listed, or you may contact the agency you are working with.
The SEPA process most often begins when you submit the first permit application for your proposal to a state or local agency. It may also be possible for you to have a pre-application meeting to discuss your project, permit requirements, and the SEPA process with the agency(ies) involved.
Not all projects require SEPA (see “categorical exemptions” in the glossary for additional information); it is dependent on the size and character of what’s proposed. The agency that will be making decisions on your project will tell you whether SEPA is required for your proposal.
You, as the project applicant, will have responsibilities, such as filling out an environmental checklist, which asks questions about your proposal. Supplying accurate and complete information can save both time and money.
Most steps in the SEPA process will be handled by the agencies that will issue permits or other approvals for your project. One agency is identified as the SEPA “lead agency” and is responsible for completing the SEPA process. The determination of who is lead agency for your proposal is the chore of the agency who receives the first permit application, but in most cases the lead agency will be the city or county permitting your project.
Lead agency responsibilities include:
The SEPA review process will begin for your proposal when you submit a completed environmental checklist. After initial review of the checklist, the lead agency must decide if they have enough information to identify the potential adverse environmental impacts of your proposal or whether additional information is required.
Mitigation measures may be needed for adverse environmental impacts that are identified. Mitigation measures are changes or conditions added to your proposal that will avoid, minimize, or compensate for adverse impacts.
Agencies will use the information in the EIS or DNS when they are making permit decisions. Permit conditions may be added to reduce the adverse impacts of your proposal. Under very rare circumstances, if an EIS shows there are likely adverse environmental impacts that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, licenses or other approvals for your proposal may be denied. It is also possible for permits to be denied under applicable permit regulations.
If a city or county planning under the Growth Management Act (GMA) will be issuing a permit or other approval for your proposal, they must also follow the procedures of the Local Project Review Act (Chapter 36.70B RCW). Although many aspects of the Local Project Review Act are similar or related to SEPA, they are separate laws. The purpose of the Local Project Review Act is to provide an opportunity for public and agency involvement early in the project review process and to fully integrate permit review with environmental review.
When a GMA city or county receives your permit application and any additional information they determine necessary to begin their project review, they will issue a "determination of completeness." The determination of completeness is not a SEPA document, but is the first step in the integrated project review process.
Soon after issuing the notice of completeness, the GMA city or county will issue a "notice of application." The notice of application is sent to interested agencies, and the public is given notice that they have 14 to 30 days to review and comment on your proposal. This provides an opportunity for other agencies and the public to become involved early in the review process when it is easiest for any needed changes to be made.
If the GMA city or county is also the SEPA lead agency for your proposal, at the agency’s option, the comment period for the notice of application may be used to solicit comments on the DS (issued together) or the DNS (which is issued after the comment period ends).
The integrated project review process ends with the GMA city or county issuing a notice of decision that states the decisions made on the project permit applications.
SEPA review is intended to be integrated throughout an agency’s permit review process, rather than a separate step. Most agencies make sincere efforts to process permit applications as efficiently as possible, while still addressing regulatory and environmental concerns. The time needed to review your proposal will depend on the permits needed, the complexity of the project, the amount of information already available, and the need to complete additional analysis or studies. In many cases, project review may be completed in two or three months. On the other hand, completing project review for some complex projects may take years. The SEPA lead agency can give you the best information on when their project review may be completed. You may also wish to discuss timing of permits and approvals with other agencies involved with your project, to help you know what to expect.
Agencies are allowed to charge applicants for SEPA processing. These fees are not set by state law but by agency ordinances, and so will vary greatly between one agency and another. If additional studies, such as a wetland delineation or traffic study, or an environmental impact statement are required, costs will be much greater. The best guidance is likely to be from the lead agency for your proposal. You may wish to talk this over with them before you get too far along in the process.
Usually, the lead agency completes the environmental review process for the entire proposal. All agencies that have permits to issue use the lead agency’s environmental analysis and documentation in their decision-making. There are a few exceptions:
Your first step in the SEPA process is filling out the environmental checklist. The purpose of the environmental checklist is to provide information to identify likely environmental impacts from proposals and to reduce or avoid these impacts, if possible. The agency will also use this information to decide whether the likely environmental impacts of the project need further study, have been adequately addressed by existing regulations, or can be mitigated.
The checklist has questions about your project and both the built environment (land use, transportation, utilities and services, etc.) and the natural environment (water, air, plants, animals, etc.). As you complete the checklist, you should think of ways to reduce the impacts of your project. Modifications made by you or the permitting agencies are most easily integrated early in the development of your proposal.
In most cases, you should be able to adequately answer most, if not all, of the questions yourself based on a familiarity with the project and the site. To help you with this, guidance is included, on how to best answer the questions and where to get additional information for some questions.
A consultant may be needed if your proposal is complex or additional studies, such as a wetland report or transportation study, are requested by the lead agency. Some applicants prefer to hire a consultant to complete all of the necessary paperwork.
Before you begin, scan through the checklist, so you are familiar with the range of questions. Often, one question will bring to mind information that will help you answer another more completely. Your complete and accurate answers on the checklist helps the agency determine what other agencies will have decisions related to your project, who will be lead agency, and how your proposal is likely to affect the environment. The checklist also provides information to other permitting agencies and those interested in your proposal.
Complete each question to the best of your ability. An answer of "not applicable" should only be used after careful consideration of the question. Failing to provide adequate information is likely to delay the process.
You are also encouraged to use any existing environmental analysis related to your proposal. Relative studies may have been completed for local planning documents, such as a comprehensive plan or subarea plan, or for similar types of projects nearby.
Giving information on past actions, related off site activities, and/or future expansions or activities planned in connection with your proposal allows the lead agency to decide what activities should be evaluated together. If enough information is available, the lead agency is able to complete the SEPA process for all related activities at one time. This can save both time and money by avoiding going through the SEPA process for each new addition or expansion, and speeding the permitting of later phases.
The standard environmental checklist form can be found within the SEPA Rules at WAC 197-11-960. The SEPA Rules allow lead agencies to change Part A of the checklist to better suit their needs, so it is generally for you to get a copy of the checklist directly from the lead agency.
During review of your proposal, the lead agency may identify possible adverse environmental impacts. If so, you and the agency can work together to identify ways to reduce the impacts, either through changes to the proposal or identification of mitigation measures. Mitigation measures are usually conditions placed on the permit or approval.
Mitigation is defined as:
Mitigation may involve almost anything, such as paying impact fees to local school districts, or changing the design of the project to avoid impacts to wetlands or other sensitive areas. Some mitigation may be required by city or county development regulations, or other local, state, or federal laws. Mitigation can also be based on information on adverse environmental impacts in the SEPA document.
When the lead agency reviews your proposal, they will attempt to identify mitigation for any adverse environmental impacts (see "What is Mitigation?" . If the lead agency determines that your proposal, with the mitigation identified, is still likely to have a significant adverse impact to the environment, an environmental impact statement (EIS) is required. The EIS evaluates the adverse environmental impacts of various alternatives and explores possible mitigation to reduce the impacts. The lead agency determines how the EIS will be written, and they may ask or allow you to help in the preparation.
The first step in the EIS process is called scoping. The public, interested tribes, and other agencies are asked to make comments suggesting areas of likely impact, potential mitigation, and possible alternatives to be examined in the EIS.
After scoping, the lead agency must decide what will be covered in the EIS. They are not required to cover every alternative identified during scoping, but are likely to choose a number of alternatives that they feel cover the range of reasonable options. You, as the proponent, may be allowed some input in the shaping of the alternatives to be evaluated, but the decision lies with the lead agency. At minimum, SEPA requires the evaluation of the proposal and a "no-action" alternative. The "no-action" alternative is usually defined by how things would be if there were no proposal.
The lead agency will issue the draft EIS with a 30-day public comment period, with a possible 15-day extension. The lead agency will then prepare a final EIS, which must respond to comments received on the draft EIS. Agencies may make permitting decisions needed for your proposal seven days after the final EIS is issued.
One of the purposes of SEPA is to involve other agencies and the public in the review process. By allowing the public and agencies to comment on a SEPA document, concerns can be identified and evaluated before permits are issued. This can result in better proposals and greater community acceptance of the final project.
If comments are received on a:
Changing your proposal after starting the review process can have a drastic effect on the ease or difficulty in completing the review process and receiving your permits. If adverse environmental impacts are avoided by the change, you are likely to ease the permitting process and may even avoid the need to do an environmental impact statement. On the other hand, if the review process is nearly or fully completed, significant changes may require portions of the process to be repeated. Incorporating environmental considerations with good planning is your best tool for a fast, efficient review process. If you choose, you may stop the review process at any time, simply by withdrawing your permit application.
The checklist asks you to describe the proposed project, the project site and surrounding area, and the likely changes to the environment that would result from the project. The information will be used by all agencies that have a permit or approval to issue for your proposal. The questions apply to all parts of your project, even if you plan to do them over a period of time or on different parcels of land.
The following guidance is provided to assist you in completing the checklist. If an agency has revised Part A of the checklist, so that the numbers no longer coincide, the titles provided should assist you in locating the relevant material.
You must answer each question accurately and carefully, to the best of your knowledge. Complete answers to the questions now may avoid unnecessary delays later. Looking over the checklist before you begin will help you know what information is required. Although most questions can be answered with a familiarity of the project, the site, and the surrounding area, some information will have to be obtained from other sources, such as the city or county in which your project will occur. This guide will provide you help in both answering the questions and locating the information you will need.
The information you provide will help the agencies analyze your project and decide whether additional studies (i.e. wetland delineation or traffic study) are needed. This information will also be used by the agencies when deciding whether to issue the necessary permits or approvals—to address the gaps and overlaps between other regulations. The checklist is designed to help you think about the possible environmental consequences of your proposal. You are encouraged to consider ways to eliminate or reduce these impacts through changes in your proposal, restoration efforts, etc.
As noted earlier, the questions in Part A of the environmental checklist may have been reordered or revised from the standard form. In that event, the titles used below may assist you in finding the appropriate guidance, despite a change in numbering. For questions not included here, please contact the agency requesting the checklist for additional guidance.
TIP:If you do not know the permits that might be required, contact the agency requesting this checklist or the Office of Permit Assistance (OPA)) [Department of Ecology, Olympia, 360-407-7564, 1-800-917-0043] can help you. OPA can provide applicants and agencies with personal assistance, The Permit Handbook , and an online interactive questionnaire that can help you identify permits for your project.
Commonly required permits include, but are not limited to:
Off-site sources of air emissions and
odors: See Air for sources. Identify any regional
air quality limitations (such as an air quality designated non-attainment
area). For information of this type, contact your local Air Quality
Authority or the Air Quality Program staff at the local Dept of Ecology
regional office. Areas with existing air quality issues (smoke and other
particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, odor, etc.) are more sensitive
to impact and may adversely impact some project activities.
Measures to reduce or control air emissions: Methods that will be used to reduce or eliminate dust or other air emissions include methods to contain, treat, or reduce odors and/or pollutant emissions, such as consistently covering material soon after deposit, placing covers over or aerating wastewater lagoons, use of bag houses or air scrubbers, wetting or otherwise stabilizing disturbed soils, using “clean” fuel/power, recycling solid waste (rather than burning or landfill), etc.
Note: Washington Dept. of Ecology’s Water Quality Program has information that may be helpful in identifying water quality issues and improving your proposal on their website.
Water body on or near: Describe (and name whenever possible) any onsite or nearby surface water body, including streams (permanent, intermittent, or seasonal), rivers, ponds, wetlands, lakes, salt water, etc. (Although a distance has not be set by rule, within 300 feet or the width of the floodplain, whichever is larger, may be a good rule of thumb to use for determining “nearby.”)
Work in, on, or near the water: Include grading, fill, or excavation; installation, construction, or demolition; paving; painting or other maintenance activities; storage of materials; planting or removal of vegetation; etc. if it will occur within 200 feet of the water and describe where these activities will take place in relation to the water body.
Water body fill or dredge: Describe the quantity, type of material, and the location including the size of the area to be filled or dredged. Example: Remove 4,000 cubic yards of silt and gravel from Big River to maintain navigational channel between river mile (RM) 3.5 and RM6.2.
Surface water withdrawals and diversions: Describe quantity and location of any surface water withdrawal even if for a nonconsumptive use (meaning the same quantity of water is returned to the water body). Diversions refer to changes in flow patterns, such as diverting a stream away from a building site or the creation of ponds or inlets.
Floodplain: Zone designations are found on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). FEMA maps are available through the local jurisdiction (city or county) or by contacting Dept. of Ecology's regional floodplain staff.
Discharge of waste: Include industrial wastewater; domestic
sewerage; agricultural runoff; stormwater drainage from parking lots,
equipment storage areas, chemically-treated lawns and landscaping; etc.
Describe the source, the likely contaminates, and quantities if known.
Ground water withdrawals and discharges: Describe any new or increased groundwater extractions, including use or purpose and approximate quantities if known. For water discharges to ground, remember to consider how stormwater runoff collected from impervious surfaces is managed onsite.
Waste discharges to ground: Septic systems are a primary source of waste discharges to ground, but unlined ponds or trenches used for discharge or storage of liquid waste (liquid manure, food processing waste, contaminated waters, etc.) should also be considered. Remember to include size/quantities and to describe the nature/characteristics of the waste to the degree known.
Water runoff (including stormwater):
Runoff source and flow: Describe the source of runoff, any intended management systems, and both where and how the runoff will be discharged or allowed to flow to ground or surface waters.
Waste or contamination of runoff: In considering whether waste
could be carried to ground or surface waters, consider potential sources
of contamination (such as parking lots, equipment storage, agricultural
practices, lawn and landscaping maintenance, animal waste, treated wood,
eroding soils, etc.), any treatment provided, and where the runoff will
flow or be discharged. Describe the type/source of potential contamination
and the water body or aquifer it is likely to end up in.
Mitigation for water impacts:Mitigation measures for water quality impacts may include:
Mitigation measures for impacts to water availability to consider:
Types of vegetation: Information on
vegetation types is available from the local Washington Department of
Natural Resources, the Puget Sound Environmental Atlas, and/or the city or
Vegetation removal or alteration: In
most cases the amount of vegetation that will be lost or altered is most
easily described in land area (acres or square footage). Selective removal
or alteration of a relatively small number of individual trees or other
plant(s) would be an exception. If harvesting timber, you may wish to
include information on board feet as well as the acreage involved.
Threatened and endangered species: A
list of threatened and endangered plant species within Washington State is
available at http://ecos.fws.gov/ or by
contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Vegetation mitigation: Avoiding or minimizing disturbance, plantings (particularly of native plant species), removal of invasive species, and reseeding should be considered as ways to mitigate impacts to vegetation. Protection, replacement, or enhancement of rare or valuable habitat is of particular value.
Types of animals: Information on the
types of animals in your area is available from the local Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife office, TRAX system through the regional
Washington Department of Natural Resources’ office, the Puget Sound
Environmental Atlas, and/or the city or county.
Threatened and endangered species:
Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife maintains a
listing or you may contact their GIS section in Olympia. A list of the
federally-designated threatened and endangered animal species within
Washington State is available at http://ecos.fws.gov/ or by contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Lead agencies may also
choose to have applicants complete the “Optional
Salmon Checklist” available in several formats.
Animal migration routes: Consider
birds, fish and other wildlife when identifying migration routes. Examples
of areas that should be identified are areas of rare or unique habitat;
wildlife corridors; fish-bearing rivers and streams; and lakes, ponds, and
other areas where migrating birds are likely to stop.
Wildlife mitigation: Examples include:
Energy and Natural Resources
Types of energy: If different energy
types/sources will be used to address separate uses/needs, identify what
type will be used for which use (such as natural gas for heating, cooking,
and hot water; electricity for all other household needs).
Solar power interference: In
essence, this question refers to shading of nearby properties as a result
of the proposal. If this may occur, please describe which properties will
be affected and the degree this is likely to occur.
Mitigation may include:
Environmental health hazards:
Describe any existing or suspected contamination at the site. Indicators
of possible site contamination include some types of past uses: such as
auto repair or wrecking facilities, gasoline dispensing facilities, dry
cleaning, municipal dump site, radioactive waste, industrial site, log
yard, agricultural uses (fertilizers and/or pesticides), etc.
Noise in area:
Consider noises associated with vehicles, machinery, drilling, blasting,
crushing, dropping of heavy objects, sports fields, playgrounds, loud
music, animals, bells, sirens, whistles, other alarms, etc.
Land and Shoreline Use
Current uses: Be as specific as possible. The words in the parentheses are examples that give more information than the classifications alone.
Agriculture uses: Include the type
of crop or animal raised on the site, as well as how long ago the
agricultural use occurred.
Structures: Include size, number,
Demolition: Structures are not
limited to buildings, but can include bridges, cell towers, fuel tanks,
pipelines, etc. When describing a structure to be demolished, information
on size is beneficial.
Zoning: Include the allowable
density as well as the classification. Contact the city or county that has
prime jurisdiction over the site for this information.
Comprehensive plan designation:
Contact the city or county that has prime jurisdiction over the site for
Shoreline master program designation:
If the site includes or lies within 200 feet of a shoreline of the state,
provide the shoreline designation (contact the city or county for this
Environmentally sensitive area: Also
referred to as “critical areas,” these are formally identified in an
ordinance adopted by cities and counties. Categories include wetlands,
streams and surface water bodies, aquifer recharge areas, frequently
flooded areas, geologic hazards, and fish and wildlife habitat
conservation areas. It is the ordinance of the city or county where the
project is located which applies regardless of whether a permit is needed
from that city or county.
Persons living or working onsite: Unless residential occupancy is known (such as in nursing homes, correctional facilities, etc.) the following occupancy rates may be used to calculate the number of people expected to reside within the following types of housing:
People displaced by proposal:
Describe the current use made of the site as well as the number of persons
displaced. Include both the people that use the site formally (reside,
work, etc.) and informally (recreation, transportation, etc.).
Mitigation of displacement: Describe
any measures proposed to reduce or compensate for the displacement of
persons described under question B.8.j.
Consistency with plans and land use designations: Describe, if known, how the project complies with existing land use plans and designations or what changes to such will be required. Beyond those named in section 8 in the checklist, the following are examples of plans and designations that the proponent and agencies may also wish to consider:
Number of units and income level rating: Number of units refers to the number of apartments or condominiums rather than buildings in multi-residential developments. Set dollar amounts for rating low, middle, and high income housing isn’t possible here due to inflation factors and variability throughout the state. Information from Washington State’s Office of Financial Management provides information on their website (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/) regarding housing costs and income levels throughout Washington State, derived from the US census.
Residential units eliminated: See guidance under 9.a above.
Housing mitigation: Consider providing some lower income housing within a development.
Building height and exteriors: Although antennas are excluded, other appurtenances should be measured in stating building height, such as smoke stacks, chimneys, vents, etc. Consider window area in determining the primary building exterior material.
Views: Include both scenic and non-scenic views that will change. Answer “none” if the appearance of the site will remain unchanged.
Mitigation for aesthetics: Views valued by persons recreating, traveling, working and/or living in the area should be considered in the design and review of the project. Mitigation may include:
Light and Glare
Types of light and glare: Consider
indoor lighting that may be seen through windows, as well as outdoor
lighting such as street lights, signage, parking lots, etc. For glare,
consider mirrored and unmirrored glass, and unpainted metal surfaces.
Safety and views: Consider potential
safety impacts to motorists, boaters, air traffic, and pedestrians on and
offsite; as well as safety and/or view impacts to nearby residents, area
workers, tourists, wildlife and domestic animals.
Off-site sources of light and glare:
Consider how light and glare from off-site sources could affect residents
or workers during construction or operation of the proposed project.
Effects on native or domestic animals also need to be considered.
Mitigation for light and glare: Mitigation may include:
|Headquarters (Lacey)||(360) 407-6000|
|SEPA Unit (Lacey)||(360) 407-6922|
|Central Regional Office (Yakima)||(509) 575-2490|
|Eastern Regional Office (Spokane)||(509) 456-2926|
|Northwest Regional Office (Bellevue)||(425) 649-7000|
|Southwest Regional Office (Lacey)||(360) 407-6300|
Fish Program (360) 902-2700 Habitat Program (360) 902-2534 Region 1 (Spokane) (509) 892-1001 Region 2 (Ephrata) (509) 754-4624 Region 3 (Yakima) (509) 575-2740 Region 4 (Mill Creek) (425) 775-1311 Region 5 (Vancouver) (360) 696-6211 Region 6 (Montesano) (360) 249-4628
Headquarters (Olympia) (360) 902-1000 Connection to Regions (800) 527-3305 Northeast Region (Colville) (509) 684-7474 Northwest Region (Sedro Woolley) (360) 856-3500 Olympic Region (Forks) (360) 374-6131 Southeast Region (Ellensburg) (509) 925-8510 South Puget Sound Region (Enumclaw) (360) 825-1631 Pacific Cascades Region (Castle Rock) (360) 577-2025
|National Marine Fisheries Service||(206) 526-6150|
|Natural Resource Conservation Service||
Or check the local phone book.
|US Army Corps of Engineers||(206) 764-3495|
|US Fish and Wildlife Service||(360) 753-9440|
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