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.
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)].
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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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