1. SEPA - General Background
The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) may be the most powerful legal tool for protecting the environment of the state. Among other things, the law requires all state and local governments within the state to:
The policies and goals in SEPA supplement those in existing authorizations of all branches of government of this state, including state agencies, counties, cities, districts, and public corporations. Any governmental action may be conditioned or denied pursuant to SEPA [RCW 43.21C.060].
SEPA is intended to ensure that environmental values are considered during decision-making by state and local agencies. When SEPA was adopted, the legislature identified four primary purposes:
To implement these purposes, the SEPA Rules direct agencies to:
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 for all elements of the 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.Proposals can be either project proposals, such as:
Or nonproject proposals, such as:
SEPA also gives agencies the authority to condition or deny a proposal based on the agency's adopted SEPA policies and environmental impacts identified in a SEPA document. See RCW 43.21C.060, WAC 197-11-660, and the Using SEPA in Decision Making section.
First adopted in 1971, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) provided Washington State's basic environmental charter. Prior to its adoption, the public had voiced concern that government decisions did not reflect environmental considerations. State and local agencies had responded that there was no regulatory framework enabling them to address environmental issues. SEPA, modeled after the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), was created to fill this need. It gives agencies the tools to allow them to both consider and mitigate for environmental impacts of proposals. Provisions were also included to involve the public, tribes, and interested agencies in most review processes prior to a final decision being made.
In 1981 the Legislature created a second committee, the Commission on Environmental Policy, to evaluate and suggest possible amendments to SEPA and the SEPA Guidelines. The Commission's goals were to reduce unnecessary paperwork, duplication, and delay; simplify the guidelines; make the process more predictable; and improve the quality of environmental decision-making.
The Commission's evaluation resulted in several suggested changes to the SEPA process, including:
The work of the Commission formed the basis for the adoption of the SEPA Rules, Chapter 197-11 WAC, replacing the previous SEPA Guidelines. These rules became effective on April 4, 1984.
The first amendments to the SEPA Rules occurred in 1995 when Ecology added procedures for the integration of SEPA with the Model Toxics Control Act [WAC 197-11-250 thru 268] and provisions for integration of SEPA into the planning process under the Growth Management Act [WAC 197-11-210 thru 235]. The designation of environmentally sensitive areas was also changed to allow the use of critical area ordinances, adopted under GMA, as the basis for eliminating some categorical exemptions [WAC 197-11-908].
In November 1997, the second set of SEPA Rule amendments became effective, implementing the requirements of the 1995 legislation, ESHB 1724. The goal of ESHB 1724 was to establish new approaches to make government regulation more effective, and to make it easier and less costly for citizens and businesses to understand and comply with requirements. With these goals in mind, ESHB 1724 amended a number of laws, including the Growth Management Act [Chapter 36.70A RCW], Shoreline Management Act [RCW 90.58.020], and SEPA. It also created the Local Project Review Act [Chapter 36.70B RCW], the Permit Assistance Center, and the Land Use Study Commission.
The Local Project Review Act has brought additional emphasis to long-standing SEPA policy. The SEPA Rules indicate that environmental documents should be clear, concise, and to the point. Agencies are encouraged to find ways to reduce paperwork and the accumulation of extraneous background data-by emphasizing important environmental impacts and alternatives. To further encourage and promote public involvement in decisions that significantly affect environmental quality, and to avoid delay and duplication, the SEPA process should be initiated early and done in conjunction with other agency procedures [WAC 197-11-030].
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