What is the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)?
SEPA is a process, not a permit or approval.
The SEPA process starts when the first permit application is submitted to a local or state agency. Typically, this a city or county government. Applicants may consider scheduling a pre-application meeting with the agency to discuss project details, permit requirements, and the SEPA process.
Not all projects require review under SEPA, depending on the size and character of the proposal. The agency making decisions will determine whether SEPA is required.
The agency issuing the permits and other approvals will handle most review process steps. They will also determine the lead SEPA agency responsible for completing the process. In most cases, this is the same local or state agency receiving the first permit application.
SEPA project review
The environmental review begins once a completed environmental checklist is submitted. The lead agency will review the checklist and decide if they have enough information to identify potential adverse environmental impacts, or if they need more information.
The lead SEPA agency will identify measures to counter or mitigate adverse environmental impacts. Changes or conditions are added to avoid, minimize, or compensate for negative impacts. Under SEPA:
- Proposals unlikely to have a significant adverse environmental impact or when sufficient mitigation has been identified, the lead agency will issue a Determination of Nonsignificance (DNS). This action may trigger a public and agency comment period.
- When mitigation cannot be easily identified, an applicant will need to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS helps assess a proposal, and identify reasonable alternatives to reduce or eliminate adverse environmental impacts.
- The lead agency then issues a Determination of Significance (DS)/Scoping notice for agencies and the public to review. Scoping helps identify the key EIS issues to be evaluated.
Integrated project review
Local governments involved in development planning under the state Growth Management Act (GMA) also must follow the procedures under the state Local Project Review Act. The act provides an opportunity for early public and agency involvement in the project-review process. It is designed to integrate permit with environmental review. While there are similarities, the two state laws are separate.
When a local government is planning under the GMA, but is also the lead SEPA agency, the city or county can decide to open a comment period for the notice of application to solicit comments on the DS (issued together) or the DNS (issued after the comment period ends). This integrated review process ends when the agency issues a notice of decision on a permit application.
Decision length: How long does it take?
SEPA review is integrated throughout an agency’s permit process. Most agencies make a concerted effort to process permit applications in a timely manner while addressing regulatory and environmental concerns. Process time depends on:
- Permits needed
- Project complexity
- Whether information is already available
- If additional analysis or studies are needed
The lead SEPA agency usually can provide an estimate about how long their project review may take.
Starting the process
Begin by contacting the city or county permitting agency to learn what permits are needed and if SEPA review is required. Local agencies may direct applicants to fill out and submit an environmental checklist with other permit applications.
The Environmental Checklist identifies likely environmental impacts and actions needed to reduce or avoid them in the first place. The lead agency will use this information to decide if a project's likely environmental impacts:
- Require further study
- Are adequately addressed by existing regulations
- Can be countered through mitigation
Mitigation helps offset environmental impacts
During proposal review, the lead agency and the applicant may work together to identify ways to counter or reduce a proposal's possible adverse environmental impacts. A proposal might be modified or conditions placed on a permit for approval. Mitigation is defined as:
- Repairing or restoring
- Reducing or eliminating over time
- Replacing, enhancing, or providing substitute resources
- Monitoring the impact and taking appropriate corrective measures
Mitigation can include measures such as paying impact fees or changing a project's design to avoid environmental impacts to sensitive areas. Agencies may require mitigation in their development regulations or through other local, state, or federal laws.
Can a proposal be changed or withdrawn?
An applicant can stop the review process at any time simply by withdrawing a permit application.
However, once the review process starts, changing a proposal can make it easier or more difficult to complete the SEPA review process, and receive permits and approvals. If a change helps avoid environmental impacts, the permitting process is likely to be easier and could avoid the need to do an EIS.
In cases where the review process is closer to completion, significant changes may require portions of the SEPA process to be repeated. The best approach is to incorporate environmental considerations when a project is still in the planning stage.