A who’s-who of Seattle environmental non-profits—350 Seattle, Sierra Club, Climate Solutions, Futurewise, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Sightline—all backed the city council’s recent 8-0 vote to limit environmental review of homebuilding and the rules that govern it.
Why would groups with the mission of creating a sustainable future want to rein in environmental oversight?
Call it: environmentalists against environmental regulations that can hurt the environment.
On paper, the policy tweaks Seattle just adopted are modest wins for housing abundance. But in the big picture, the unanimous vote reflects a sea change in environmentalist thinking—a shift away from the once widely held belief that cities are an environmental scourge, and toward the contemporary understanding that cities are an essential environmental solution.
Adding homes to cities like Seattle not only helps protect farms and forests from sprawl, but also cuts climate pollution—because in compact communities people drive less and their homes use less energy.
And that solution hinges on housing. Adding homes to cities like Seattle not only helps protect farms and forests from sprawl, but also cuts climate pollution—because in compact communities people drive less and their homes use less energy.
As Sierra Club Seattle Group Chair Brittney Bush Bollay put it, “one of the most important things we can do for the environment is to make it easier for people to live near where they work and play.”
Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) mandates environmental review of individual homebuilding projects, as well as changes to zoning laws that increase the number of homes that can be built. Enter Seattle’s anti-housing activists who obstruct both, hijacking the SEPA review process to stonewall the construction of new homes—that is, who abuse environmental laws to cause net harm to the environment.
See my litany of Seattle SEPA abuses here. Flawed passages in a state code section that happens to include the word “environmental” have let anti-change activists greenwash their efforts to block everything from housing for formerly homeless seniors to one of the greenest office buildings in the world. The latest gem: a legal appeal to stop the creation of tiny house villages for homeless people.
Taken as a whole, SEPA is an indispensable set of laws for a wide range of vital environmental protections. Sightline has leveraged SEPA’s review and public process to help kill harmful fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like a giant coal terminal at Longview and an oil-by-rail terminal at Anacortes.
But SEPA, conceived in the era of white flight and smog-spewing gas guzzlers, has not kept up with the ecological imperative to welcome more people to cities. For example, SEPA is set up to penalize an apartment building for providing too little parking, but to ignore how putting homes near jobs lowers driving overall.
Worse, under SEPA rules, anyone who doesn’t like a development or zoning change that would bring more homes to the city can file an appeal—groundless or not—halting progress for months or even years.
The editorial board of Seattle’s big daily warned that the environmental community is getting duped by the “faux environmentalism” of SEPA reform.
Seattle city council’s unanimous vote and the broad environmentalist support attest to a different reality. Fresh off sharing the stage with author Naomi Klein to discuss Klein’s new climate change book On Fire, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda summed it up: “We have to be a welcoming city… we have to build density… [SEPA reform] is an environmental justice policy.”
Seattle’s SEPA reform merely takes advantage of state laws intended to stop SEPA abuse
Seattle isn’t going rogue on SEPA reform. All the new ordinance does is allow Seattle to apply SEPA fixes that the state already adopted.
Recognizing SEPA’s potential to backfire on urban homebuilding a decade ago, Washington lawmakers legislated several options to limit the damage. In 2012, Seattle took advantage, raising the size threshold that triggers mandatory environmental review of housing developments from the default 20 units to 200 units, though only in the city’s designated urban centers and villages. In 2015, a technicality forced the city to temporarily revert to 20 units. The bill Seattle just passed brings the threshold back up to 200—it’s nothing new.
To further ward off SEPA abuse, Seattle could expand the exemption to cover the whole city and raise it higher than 200 units. The catch? The city would have to conduct SEPA review of any such proposed changes!
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Which brings me to the next piece of Seattle’s SEPA reform bill. Earlier this year, Washington adopted legislation (HB 1923) that grants a safe harbor from SEPA appeals on a select list of policy actions cities and counties can take to encourage more housing—mostly various flavors of fairer, greener zoning. To access the SEPA appeal protection, local governments have to “check the box” to align their codes with the state’s.
If Seattle had the HB 1923 box to check before proposing changes to rules for accessory dwellings in 2015, anti-housing activists could not have filed their appeals that delayed the reforms for three years.
HB 1923 also shields raising SEPA review thresholds for multifamily homebuilding. If, as I suggest above, Seattle opts to boost thresholds further, the city’s SEPA review of the proposal cannot be appealed.
Lastly, the new Seattle ordinance checks another box to enable an older state law designed to curtail redundant SEPA review. That law says if a city has adopted a comprehensive plan that was subjected to environmental review under SEPA, then subsequent changes to city regulations consistent with that plan are exempt from review.
No Washington city that I’m aware of has utilized this exemption, but the potential seems huge. Could a proposal to ban off-street parking quotas, for example, qualify for exemption from SEPA review in a city with a comprehensive plan that calls for a shift away from cars? Perhaps even Seattle’s recent affordable housing upzones, delayed for over a year by a SEPA appeal, could have been exempt.
Compact communities are good for the planet, so let’s make it easier to build more of them
All told, Seattle took a few solid but small steps toward keeping Washington’s signature environmental law from being abused to sabotage housing options.
The bigger story is the solidifying consensus among environmental leaders and elected officials on the far-reaching environmental benefits of opening up the city to more residents; and the consequent recognition that even regulations originally intended to protect the environment can end up doing more harm than good if they thwart homebuilding in growing cities like Seattle.
There’s much more to be done, though. As I wrote previously, “to work for cities, SEPA ultimately needs major surgery at the state level.” The core flaw in SEPA analyses is that only negative impacts count. In other words, SEPA says: who cares if adding homes lowers carbon emissions and curbs sprawl. It’s things like shadows, view loss, and parking we need worry about most.
To put a finer point on it: today, regulations for environmental assessment that don’t prioritize climate action are garbage. The long but necessary battle to fix SEPA has barely begun.
One recent SEPA appeal turned the usual story on its head, acting to delay policy that would work against housing abundance. Attorneys representing developer interests appealed Seattle’s SEPA review of its proposal to impose new impact fees on residential and commercial construction. The appellants argued that the review didn’t account for adverse environmental impacts caused by impact fees driving up the cost of housing—a valid argument! The appeal was upheld on a technicality, so will likely only delay the city from its misguided march toward impact fees on new homes.