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SEPA and Infill Development - Flexible Tools Relying on Planning

Updated May 2015

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) includes several provisions giving local government flexibility to integrate reviews under SEPA with planning for urban infill areas.  These flexible tools are intended to assist cities and counties in meeting objectives to encourage more intense development in existing urban areas.  These include:


Minor New Construction Flexible Exemption Levels (WAC 197-11-800(1)(c))

The SEPA Rules specify minimum exempt levels for certain new construction such as residential and commercial development. Cities and counties have the option to increase the SEPA exemption levels for various types of minor new construction up to the maximum specified in the SEPA Rules.  Many cities and counties have raised their SEPA exemption levels under this provision.    The exemption levels and adoption process were revised in 2012 and 2014.  Higher thresholds are now allowed in urban areas with a process for specifying that elements of environment are addressed in other ways and a 60-day notice provided to interested parties. Some examples of cities and counties that have adopted the new higher thresholds established in the recent revisions to the rules include:

Blaine Shoreline
Bremerton Spokane Valley
Covington SeaTac
Marysville Counties:
Mountlake Terrace Chelan County
Mukilteo Clark County
Redmond Okanogan County
Ridgefield Spokane County


Planned Actions (RCW 43.21C.440)

Cities and Counties planning under the Growth Management Act (GMA) may create “planned actions” that evaluate future projects at the planning stage, with limited review at the project stage. The first step is preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the planned action, that evaluates the likely environmental impacts of anticipated future projects. Using the information in the EIS, the city/county adopts a planned action ordinance that identifies the types of projects that will be allowed in the specified area. When a project application is submitted that meets the planned action ordinance and the impacts have already been evaluated in the EIS for the planned action, no additional SEPA threshold determination or SEPA appeal is required. In 2012, this process was refined and moved to a separate section of statute (formerly located in RCW 43.21C.031(2)).

See SEPA Rule: WAC 197-11-164, 168, and 172.  

SEPA Planned actions have been utilized by many jurisdictions.  See numerous examples and additional information at the Municipal Research and Services Center’s (MRSC) webpage on Planned Actions.


Subarea Planning for Urban Centers and Transit Oriented Development (RCW 43.21C.420)

Cities may adopt subarea plans to encourage high-density, compact, in-fill development and redevelopment.  The process may be used within designated urban centers, or within half a mile of major transit stops where density is at least 15 dwelling units per acre.  The city addresses project impacts of future development in a subarea EIS. Subsequent development that is consistent with the subarea plan would not require additional SEPA. SEPA appeals of the future development are eliminated or limited. The city may recover costs of preparing the subarea plan EIS by adopting “late-comer” fees for subsequent development.

Examples include Tacoma’s South Downtown Subarea Plan and Tukwila’s South Center Subarea Plan. 

Additional information available at MRSC’s page about Transit Oriented Development.


Urban Infill Exemption Thresholds (RCW 43.21C.229)

GMA cities and counties are authorized to raise the development thresholds for SEPA review specifically to accommodate infill development.   There is no statutory ceiling on these locally-adopted thresholds.  This provision is intended to encourage residential or mixed use development in an urban growth area where the density and intensity goals of the comprehensive plan are not being met.  To adopt infill exemptions to SEPA, the city/county must have prepared an EIS on the city/county comprehensive plan, or prepared an EIS that considers the proposed use and density in the area proposed for the infill exemption.  Development must not exceed the density or intensity goals in the comprehensive plan. This provision was added to SEPA in 2005 and revised in 2012. 

Examples: Seattle has made extensive use of this provision to tailor SEPA review thresholds in various areas of the city where they are encouraging infill. Where growth targets are not being met, the SEPA threshold for dwelling units was raised.  Kent has also adopted an infill exemption ordinance with extensive provisions for mitigating impacts. Everett adopted an infill exemption for a mixed use overlay zone. For more information, see:

Additional on information available at MRSC’s page about Infill Development.


For additional information on integrating SEPA and GMA processes, please see MRSC resources: