5. Commenting

Chapter Contents

5.1. When to Comment
5.2. Commenting Effectively

 

 

An important part of SEPA is the opportunity for citizens and other agencies to review and comment on many proposals. When an opportunity to comment on a SEPA document is missed or ignored, the opportunity to have a beneficial effect on the proposal is often lost. Comments can provide the lead agency with missing information on the proposal, identify inaccurate information, and/or provide input on possible mitigation or alternatives. 

It is vital that comments are filed with the lead agency before the comment period closes. Lack of timely comment by agencies or the public is construed as a lack of objection to the environmental analysis completed by the lead agency [WAC 197-11-545]. This is especially important with the new stricter timelines under the integrated project review process (see section 8 Local Project Review Act), agency permit decisions are often finalized immediately after the close of the comment period. Also, providing timely comments is usually a prerequisite to the appeal of a proposal. (See section 11 Appeals.)

It is particularly important for agencies with jurisdiction to comment when they have concerns about a proposal. Since the comments become part of the SEPA record, the information can be used by any agency with jurisdiction when making permit decisions. (See section 6. Using SEPA in Decision Making.)

5.1 When to Comment

Citizens and agencies are accustomed to commenting on project proposals where it is easy to see the potential for on-the-ground impacts. It has become increasingly important to also review and comment on nonproject proposals. These include the adoption of state or local rules, resource management plans, comprehensive plans, critical area ordinances, development regulations, etc. Plans and the implementing regulations are likely to have a much more widespread influence, as they may affect the permitting, approval, or denial of unknown numbers of future project proposals or permit renewals.

As more cities and counties are planning under the Growth Management Act, many environmental concerns are considered during the development of plans and implementing regulations. Many of these issues cannot be reconsidered or appealed during later project review. (See section 8.4.1. Analyzing Consistency.)

Table 2 contains information on the public comment periods, public notice, and circulation requirements for SEPA documents. Although the majority of SEPA documents require a comment period, some do not. The following types of documents may provide opportunities to comment on a proposal, although no proposal—project or nonproject—will offer all:

  • Notice of application (NOA): Cities and counties planning under the Growth Management Act (GMA) are now required to issue a notice of application for many projects. The intent of the notice of application is to provide an early opportunity for other agencies and the public to review and comment on a project under review by a city or county. The format will vary between different jurisdictions, for instance it may or may not include the environmental checklist. The notice of application is sometimes the only opportunity to comment on a proposal and, because it occurs early in the process, gives the lead agency the greatest flexibility to act on comments received. Comments on the notice of application can give information on probable adverse impacts that would result, give suggestions on how to reduce or eliminate impacts (mitigation conditions), correct inaccuracies in the information provided, etc.

  • Consultations: Lead agencies are encouraged to solicit input from other agencies with jurisdiction and expertise prior to making a threshold determination for a proposal. Consultations may be interagency meetings, which may or may not include the applicant, or they may be written requests for response. In either case the lead agency should provide sufficient information that agencies can understand the proposal and its likely impacts. Consulted agencies are encouraged to take advantage of this early opportunity to shape a proposal by identifying problems and potential solutions. Appropriate comments would also include any likely significant adverse environmental impacts that would indicate the need for an environmental impact statement.

  • Determination of nonsignificance (DNS): The lead agency issues a determination of nonsignificance when a proposal is not likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment. If the DNS has a comment period, comments may indicate any inaccuracies in the environmental checklist, areas of probable impact that have not been adequately addressed, possible mitigation measures that should be added to the proposal, etc.

  • Determination of Significance/Scoping Notice (DS/Scoping): When the lead agency determines that a proposal is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment, the agency circulates the DS to other agencies and the public for comment on what should be analyzed in the environmental impact statement (EIS). Comments on the DS should focus on probable areas of impact that should be addressed in the EIS, methods of analysis that should be used, reasonable alternatives to the proposal that should be considered, and mitigation measures that may reduce or eliminate the adverse impacts.

  • Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS): The purpose of an EIS is to provide the public and agency decision-makers with information on the probable significant adverse impacts associated with a proposal, reasonable alternatives, and possible mitigation measures. Comments on the draft should address the accuracy of the information provided, the appropriateness of the methodologies used, the need for additional study(ies), additional mitigation, the merits of the alternatives, etc

If a consulted agency fails to comment on a draft EIS, the agency is barred from alleging any defect in the analysis in the EIS [WAC 197-11-545(1)]. A consulted agency is any agency with jurisdiction or expertise that is requested by the lead agency to provide information or comments on a proposal during the SEPA process.

If an agency with jurisdiction comments on a draft EIS and the lead agency does not provide adequate response to the concerns, the agency with jurisdiction may prepare a supplemental EIS [WAC 197-11-600(3)(c)].

  • Final Environmental Impact Statement: There is no comment period for a final EIS, although there is a 7-day waiting period after it is issued before agencies are allowed to issue non-exempt permits and approvals.

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5.2 Commenting Effectively

The lead agency may accept only written comments or they may hold a public meeting or hearing to allow oral comments to be heard. Oral comments have the added benefit of sharing views in a public forum, and during a public hearing, will be recorded exactly. Public meetings may be less formal, and an exact record may not be taken. Submitting comments in writing is the most common method of commenting and gives commentors assurance that an accurate record of their concerns has been made a part of the record.

It is important to remember that the goal is to communicate to the lead agency both the concerns with the proposal and possible remediation. Simple tips the reviewer should keep in mind while commenting include:

  • Be clear, concise, and organized.

  • Be specific. Saying that you are against a project will not have as much effect as saying why. The SEPA Rules encourage agencies and the public to be as specific in their comments as possible [WAC 197-11-550].

  • Identify possible solutions. Suggestions on reasonable alternatives and mitigation (conditions to avoid, minimize, or reduce adverse impacts) may help shape a questionable project into one with much less environmental impact . After identifying the problem, whenever possible, suggest potential solutions.

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