SEPA Guidance for Nonproject proposals

SEPA guidance on conducting programmatic or "nonproject" proposals.

Unless they are specifically exempted, proposals such as plans, ordinances, programs, and administrative rule actions must be reviewed under SEPA. These "nonproject" actions are those involving local government or state agency that often:

  • Contain standards controlling the use or modification of the environment.
  • Will govern a series of connected actions including but not limited to adopting or amending comprehensive plans, transportation plans, ordinances, rules, and regulations.
SEPA review for nonproject actions requires agencies to consider the “big picture” by:
  • Conducting comprehensive analysis
  • Addressing cumulative impacts
  • Considering possible alternatives
  • Outlining successful mitigation measures

Nonproject reviews

Nonproject reviews have become increasingly important because they:
  • Provide the basis for future project decisions - Environmental analysis for nonproject actions forms the basis for later project review and provides greater predictability.
  • Expedite project analysis and decisions -The more detailed and complete the environmental analysis during the nonproject stage, the less review will needed during project review. The project review can focus on those environmental issues not adequately addressed during the nonproject stage.
Tip: When preparing a nonproject environmental document, the lead agency should evaluate whether to use the document during the environmental review of future project proposals:
  • Will the information provide a solid foundation for additional analysis at the project phase?
  • Will the information be easy to locate and cross reference in later environmental documents?
The procedural SEPA requirements for reviewing both nonproject and project proposals are basically the same. Environmental review starts as soon as there is information to analyze likely environmental impacts. Usually, the first step is completing an environmental checklist including Part D, Supplemental Sheet for Nonproject Activities. This step, however, might be skipped when a lead agency has already determined an environmental impact statement is needed or that SEPA has already been completed.
Nonproject proposal reviews should consider existing regulations and plans as well as any under development. When developing a critical areas ordinance, for example, the lead agency should consider the ordinance's relationship to the federal Clean Water Act, state Shoreline Management Act, and similar regulations.

Nonproject actions: Comprehensive plans, future project development

When a nonproject action involves a comprehensive plan or similar proposal governing future project development, the probable environmental impacts that would be allowed for the future development need to be considered. For example, environmental analysis of a zone designation should analyze the likely impacts of the development allowed within that zone. The more specific the analysis is at this point, the less environmental review is likely to be needed at the project permit-application stage.
When possible, the proposal should be described in terms of alternative means of accomplishing an objective.  For example, a statewide plan to use chemicals to treat aquatic vegetation could be described as a plan to control aquatic vegetation. This would encourage the review of various alternatives in addition to using chemical treatments and might include a review of biological treatments, mechanical methods, or a combination of various methods. Cities and counties planning under the state Growth Management Act have additional guidance and requirements when reviewing nonproject actions.

Nonproject environmental impact statements

In most instances, developing a nonproject action involves analyzing alternatives and potential consequences of future project actions. Since an EIS also evaluates alternatives and probable impacts, it should be possible to combine the EIS and analysis of the nonproject action into an integrated document.
When formatting a nonproject EIS, agencies have great flexibility. They are encouraged to combine the EIS with the planning document. The EIS should discuss impacts and alternatives with an appropriate level of detail  to scope the proposal. While formatting is flexible, the EIS must include:
  • Cover letter or memo
  • Fact sheet
  • Summary
  • Table of contents
In preparing a nonproject EIS, consider including the following components:

Background and objectives

  • Issue background including purpose and need for action
  • Legislative authority or mandate
  • Primary objective statement
  • Relationship to ongoing and future regulatory and planning efforts

Existing situation

  • Description of existing situation
  • Current regulations
  • Existing means to achieve objective
  • Current institutional structure

Proposal and alternatives

  • Description of proposed regulation, policy or plan
  • Proposed alternatives that could reasonably meet the primary objectives

Environmental impacts

  • Summary of adverse environmental impacts relative to other policies.
  • Summary of environmental impacts from the proposal and alternatives.