Determining whether SEPA is required

State and local agencies determine whether a project or proposal needs environmental review using the SEPA process.

Unless specifically exempted by statute or state SEPA rules (see WAC 197-11-800 through 890), an environmental review is required for all agency actions related to proposed projects, regardless whether the applicant is from the private or public sector. These actions include:

  • Providing funding
  • Issuing permits
  • Adopting plans, regulations, or ordinances — also called nonproject proposals
To determine whether SEPA is required, use the following steps:
  1. Define the total proposal — including any interdependent parts.
  2. Identify all required agency actions required for the proposal such as licenses or funding. (If there is no agency action, SEPA review is not required.)
  3. Determine whether the proposal or agency action is categorically exempt.
Some proposals may not require additional environmental review if they qualify as a “planned action” under an ordinance adopted by a county or city planning development under the state Growth Management Act (GMA). In other cases, it may be possible to use existing environmental documents to meet SEPA requirements for a new proposal.

Pre-application process

Environmental review begins long before an agency makes a formal determination whether a project is likely to have significant environmental impacts. All agencies are encouraged to offer some form of pre-application process for applicants. This can be an informal meeting, a site visit, or a more formal process.

As the applicant becomes familiar with SEPA, they may make changes to their project’s location or design. An early review can speed environmental review and permitting processes, reducing expenses and time for proponents and agencies.
While applicants should provide information they should not be required to prepare or present detailed plans. The agency should use preliminary information to identify:
  • Regulations and permit needs.
  • Possible study requirements.
  • Potential mitigation.
  • Review timelines and other appropriate information.

Defining the entire proposal

Accurately defining the proposal is key to a successful SEPA process. Defining the entire proposal helps determine:
  • If SEPA is required.
  • Agencies with jurisdiction and/or expertise.
  • Lead SEPA agency.
  • That all related actions are evaluated in a single document when required (WAC 197-11-060, Part 5).
Defining the total proposal involves identifying all the proposal’s related and interdependent pieces. An appropriate environmental review looks at the impacts of all related activities. For example, a proposal involving mining material at one site to be transported and processed at another is a prime example of defining the entire proposal.

Actions are related if they are dependent on each other and would not happen otherwise. Related actions may also be spread over time, such as a project’s construction, operation, and closure phases. Related actions may have a single or several proponents.

A golf course, for instance, might be proposed by a private party but depends on a city installing a water reuse system to serve the site. The proponents are separate but neither project could proceed without the other. Under SEPA, they should be considered together as one proposal.

Phased review

The environmental review can be phased or tiered so SEPA compliance can be done at each phase. A tiered review allows agencies and the public to focus on issues that are ready for decision while excluding those already decided or not yet ready.
The sequence of a phased review must go from a broad to a narrow scope. For example, the review of a multi-phase planned unit development would consist of a general review of the entire proposal and a detailed review each phase ready for construction. Additional review would occur prior to each future phase.

A phased review, however, is not appropriate when it merely divides a project to avoid consideration of cumulative impacts or alternatives. The “broad to narrow” restriction for a phased environmental review does not apply to planning proposals done under GMA.

Whenever a tiered review approach is used, SEPA documents must clearly state the proposal is being phased. Future environmental documents should identify previous documents and focus on issues not adequately addressed in previous documents.

Identifying permits

When defining a proposal, it is critical to determine what permits or approvals will be needed from local, state, and federal agencies. The Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation and Assistance can help determine which state and federal environment permits might be needed.

In deciding which permits or approvals are needed, it may be necessary to consult with other agencies to determine if they have permits or approvals to issue for a specific project. This will help ensure that all agency actions are identified before determining whether a proposal is categorically exempt.