Lead agency determination and responsibilities

SEPA guidance for determining lead agency and evaluating the proposal.

Under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), most new proposals are reviewed by a designated “lead agency.” While this is typically a city or county government agency, other entities such as port and school districts and state agencies also can be a lead SEPA agency.

The lead agency makes sure:

  • Procedural reviews comply with SEPA.
  • Information about a proposal’s environmental aspects is gathered and assessed — and all agencies with jurisdiction are informed and involved.
  • Threshold determinations are made and, if needed, Environmental Impact Statements are prepared.

A responsible official represents the lead agency to ensure the environmental analysis meets SEPA procedural requirements. The official can be:

  • A single agency representative for all SEPA review.
  • Different staff with varying specialties for each SEPA review.
  • A group such as an environmental review committee, city council, or county commission.

All responsible officials should be identified as part of an agency's SEPA procedures.

Determining lead agency

When an application for a new proposal is submitted, the agency receiving the first application typically determines the lead SEPA agency. The lead agency defines the total proposal and identifies all necessary permits.

Under state SEPA rules, the following criteria is used to help determine the lead agency:

  • When the proponent is a local government or state agency, the lead will be the local or state agency seeking permission.
  • When a private applicant requires a license from a city or county, the local jurisdiction where the greatest portion of the project is located is lead.
  • If a city or county license is not needed, another local agency that has jurisdiction will be lead.
  • If there is no local agency with jurisdiction, one of the state agencies with a license to issue will be lead.

Lead agency agreements

Any local government or state agency in Washington can be lead SEPA agency as long as all agencies with jurisdiction agree. A lead agency is not required to have jurisdiction on the proposal.
If all agencies agree, two or more agencies also can become “co-lead” agencies. The nominal lead agency is responsible for complying with SEPA procedural requirements but all agencies sharing lead status are responsible for the completeness and accuracy of environmental review documents. Although not required, a written agreement helps clarify responsibilities and typically contains:

  • An outline of each agency’s duties.
  • A statement regarding which agency is nominal lead.
  • How disagreements will be resolved.
  • Determining which agency hears appeals to decisions.
  • The circumstances under which the contract can be dissolved.

Role of federal agencies

Federal agencies can share lead agency status with a state or local agency to produce a combined National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)/SEPA document. This coordinated approach affords local, state, and federal agencies the opportunity to prepare documents together, save resources, and ensure all jurisdictions get the information they need to evaluate a proposal to determine if it meets permits, certification, and approval requirements. Often, this shared review approach is formalized by written agreement.

Transferring lead agency status

A city with a population under 5,000 people, or a county with fewer than 18,000 residents may transfer lead agency status for a private proposal to a state agency that has a license to issue. The city or county must forward the environmental checklist and other relevant information to the state agency — along with the notification to transfer lead agency status. The state agency may not refuse. If more than one state agency has standing, the SEPA rules (WAC 197-11-936) are used to determine the new lead agency.

Assuming lead agency status

Any agency with jurisdiction for a proposed project may assume lead agency status during the 14-day comment period for a Determination of Nonsignificance (DNS). If an agency with jurisdiction believes a proposal is likely to have significant adverse environmental impacts requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), they can assume lead status. They are required to issue a Determination of Significance (DS) and prepare an EIS.