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SEPA reform needed

Members of the Seattle City Council have been accused of trying to “…gut bedrock environmental protection rules…” because they state what has been obvious to many stakeholders all along—the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) is used as a tool to delay or derail projects. While Council Member Mike O’Brien’s proposed ordinance is far from perfect, it’s fundamental intention is critical in addressing housing affordability and access.

Opponents of reform argue that if Seattle wants to advance environmentally beneficial projects, it should defend a public process requiring thorough analysis and deliberation to assess and mitigate impacts.

Guess what? They already do. Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) is designed to do just that. Environmental Protection is one of GMA’s 14 coequal goals when it comes to planning for growth. Comprehensive Plan Updates that most cities and counties are required to undergo take into account, with heavy local input, environmental protections including Shorelines Management Act, Critical Areas Ordinance and GMA itself. And these don’t even reference the broad spectrum of local environmental and land use regulations in place across the state.

Not one of these plans is created overnight or in a vacuum – all include a wide variety of open public process and appeals options. So why then, is the suggestion that SEPA appeals be limited if a project complies with the underlying plan, so preposterous? Why plan and re-plan and plan again only to be stuck in a SEPA loophole? Furthermore, why aren’t all of these processes integrated?

The Legislature took some small steps toward evaluating the planning process this past session, allowing cities to avoid SEPA appeals of certain major land-use zoning changes. (Remember, zoning is just a land-use designation and does not mean that parcels will immediately change use or density.) These include upzoning near transit stations and allowing for duplexes and townhomes in single-family zones. These zoning changes would still be required to undergo a thorough SEPA review, but would be protected from the seemingly endless appeals.

Washington’s Legislature has also made other minor SEPA reforms in past sessions: including allowing local governments to adopt higher reasonable categorical exemptions in SEPA – if local governments across the state actually want to encourage housing options at affordable price-points for their citizens they should be tripping over themselves to adopt the highest categorical exemptions allowed under current state law.

Progress means our communities need to embrace new neighbors and new neighborhoods – housing is a positive value for Washington. The state can lead on this in 2020 by taking up and reforming the repetitiveness of our land use planning. For example, it is long past time for integration of GMA and SEPA.

Jurisdictions across the state spend millions creating comprehensive plans through a robust public process that designates where and how growth is to happen. At the very least, residential construction that is consistent with that underlying comprehensive plan should be categorically exempt from SEPA. The local government has already done a sizable and appropriate land use and environmental review and taken into consideration public input, it’s time to allow what they’ve planned for and avoid appeals to new neighbors.

Our state woefully lacks supply – one of the primary drivers for increased housing prices. Headline after headline in our state continues to point to our housing crisis, with everyone from Governor Inslee to Congressman Denny Heck pointing to the basic issue of supply. Even Washington Director of Commerce Lisa Brown noted on TVW that private developer input is needed as we look at the GMA and find ways to increase our housing supply.

Higher home prices impact access to attainable housing and homeownership. In Washington state, the median new home price is $505,729, well beyond the means of the annual income of the average working family. For every $1,000 increase in price, 2,393 people are priced out of the market. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the price of a new home, 25% or more, is directly tied to regulation, permitting and other fees.

Layer upon layer of regulations, long permitting cycles and unpredictable appeals all create an uncertain environment that also drives up the cost of new home construction. In fact, a single-family home’s permit paperwork alone can reach heights over 7 inches – no wonder the approval process takes so long and is so costly. Streamlining this process while still protecting Washington’s values is possible and is necessary for affordable housing options.

While our state’s population is booming, housing supply hasn’t kept up. Inventory lags across the board for millennials seeking to buy their first homes as baby boomers stay in their homes longer. We are missing the “middle rung” of the housing ladder such as condos, duplexes and smaller single-family starter homes that are the next step for many families. Syncing SEPA categorical exemptions with underlying land-use planning takes steps to provide more units for more people.

Cities, counties and the state need to look for more opportunities to synchronize the coral reef of regulation that residential permits (you know, permits that mean additional housing units for the people of Washington) are subject to. We need to take a hard look at best practices in our planning and avoid repetitive regulatory schemes and look for how Washington can attract development in both rural and urban communities.

Greg Lane is the Executive Vice President for the Building Industry Association of Washington.  Lane has also served as TVW President and CEO; Deputy Secretary of State and held a senior leadership role at the Attorney General’s Office.  A proud Husky, Greg and his wife Sarah have four children and live in the Olympia area.

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