Op-Ed: Washington's State Environmental Policy Act 'Off the Rails' in Cities

Drawing on a slew of examples, Dan Bertolet argues that Washington's State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has been co-opted in ways that run against its original purpose: protecting the environment.

1 minute read

November 19, 2017, 11:00 AM PST

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc


Anthon Jackson / Shutterstock

When the state of Washington enacted SEPA in 1971, writes Dan Bertolet, "heightened awareness of ecology spawned stricter controls on development. In the subsequent decades, though, we've learned that concentrating new homes in existing urbanized areas is an ecological imperative."

Bertolet's main gripe is with how SEPA appeals are used to stymie construction in urban areas. "Outside of urban housing construction, SEPA is an essential set of environmental regulations. [...] It's in the city where SEPA has gone off the rails."

Under current law, Bertolet writes, "Anyone averse to a proposed apartment building for whatever reason can file a legal appeal through SEPA that delays construction. The risk of appeal introduces toxic uncertainty to homebuilding, because delay, as I've spelled out elsewhere, can rack up costs that bleed projects into the red. The result is fewer new homes." The article includes a wide range of such examples.

"SEPA fixates on what's immediate and localized while ignoring what's long-term and far-reaching. For example, SEPA demands to know how many cars will come and go from a new apartment building, but it is oblivious to how increased housing density reduces car use across a metro region." Bertolet's ultimate conclusion is that SEPA's focus needs to be redefined on the state level.

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