Does the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Protect or Obstruct?

According to the State of Washington Department of Ecology, “The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) provides a way to identify possible environmental impacts that may result from governmental decisions.” Examples include private development projects like housing, offices or retail and for public projects like new roads or schools. Using a checklist SEPA looks at the potential effects on the following criteria:

  • SEPAReviewProcessAir
  • Animals
  • Earth
  • Energy
  • Environmental health
  • Land use
  • Plants
  • Public services
  • Transportation
  • Utilities
  • Water

The review is conducted by a ‘lead agency’, which is usually the city/county government where a private project is proposed. For a public proposal, the lead agency is typically the agency proposing the project. After the initial submission the lead agency can request further traffic and site studies that might evaluate air and water quality or wetlands impacts.

After the project proponent submits information for the checklist the lead agency can either issue a ‘determination of non-significance’ (DNS) if it deems there will not be a significant impact or it can require a neutral third party to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It appears that the goal is to reduce a proposal’s environmental impacts to an acceptable level or allow agencies to require conditions to offset a portion of the negative environmental effects.

As a Seattle resident and bicyclist, I am aware of two instances where the appeal of a determination of non-significance is extending the review process of local bicycle facility proposals. Both the construction of the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail and the 2013 Bicycle Master Plan have been appealed under this process. Below is a zoning map for Ballard that I created. It is an example of land-use juxtapositions that are complicated.


Expanding the view to a neighborhood development scale, SEPA, “provides countless levers for disgruntled neighbors to thwart approval of higher density projects.”(Hurd & Hurd, 2012)  This is a statement that reflects an ineffective conflict in state policy between the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) and the way that SEPA is sometimes applied to halt mixed-use development.

The conversation here is directly tied to conflicts in land-use.  Navigating these murky areas where local zoning codes juxtapose divergent usage requires strong leadership from the city. This is where urban planning and design become the tools for implementing a vision for a city that hopefully is forward thinking in how density can reduce sprawl.  The stronger the city’s position of what to preserve, protect, separate or integrate, the easier it will be to reduce conflicts and continue to grow a prosperous and sustainable urban environment.

It may likely be that city leadership is not enough and that the SEPA rules and process need to be revised to direct the review take a more macro approach to urban systems.  This is the kind of Environmental Policy Act that will holistically consider negative environmental impacts.

Hurd, A-P., and Al Hurd. 2012. The Carbon Efficient City. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

State of Washington Department of Ecology, State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), (accessed February 3, 2014)


2 responses to “Does the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Protect or Obstruct?

  1. Pingback: SEPA Reform Advocacy Meeting | Bicycles + Infrastructure + Landscape·

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