The Seattle City Council recently passed regulatory reforms to ease restrictions on land use to create jobs. I was an enthusiastic supporter, erroneously credited with being “in charge of the secret negotiations to bring forth the proposals.” I’m thankful to all the people who actually did work to get it passed. But, unfortunately, the measures to relax requirements under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) are almost canceled out by State mandated growth targets and new requirements for parking in areas exempted from SEPA.
The intention of SEPA when it was passed in 1971 was to disclose and mitigate environmental impacts from new development. The State stepped in because local governments were allowing projects to go forward without enough review. The new legislation was intended to be stronger than local laws. However, over the years, local ordinances passed by local governments afforded equal or better protection than SEPA. In many cases all that was left was a redundant and time-consuming SEPA process. The regulatory reform package was intended to eliminate that redundancy, saving time, money, and creating jobs.
That was the plan. But a closer look reveals that the package may have been two steps forward, a press conference, and then a step and a half backward. The plan was always touted as being a rather modest relaxation of rules and regulations, but it may be even more modest than previously thought.
More below the jump.
Regulatory Reform, SEPA, and Setting Limits on Growth
State law allows exemptions from SEPA requirements when local ordinances and rules match the State’s requirements. But that exemption is tied to State growth targets, or what would be better called growth limits, set by central planners at the Office of Financial Management (OFM).
The problem with these targets is that they treat growth as if new people moving into the region were radioactive waste or garbage, something nobody really wants but might be willing to accept if forced. The number crunchers at OFM put on their green eye shades and determine how much growth local jurisdictions can “take,” setting, in effect, a maximum limit for new people and jobs.
Under state law, local jurisdictions can grant exemptions to SEPA only in areas that are below their growth target, so, ironically, whenever we’re successful as a city encouraging growth to happen with less regulation, the growth targets the old SEPA rules kick back in. More people and jobs means we have to go back to the old way of doing things that limited job creation in the first place.
Regulatory Reform, Parking, and Growth Targets
Something strange also happens with parking minimums required of developers under the new package. It’s true that in some areas under the regulatory reform package, parking requirements are relaxed like other aspects of SEPA. However, in those areas, there are new parking and traffic mitigation requirements not previously required by state law. The new requirements add an entirely new, and arguably, onerous burden to projects that are already SEPA exempt. The City in passing regulatory reform actually added a new regulatory requirement for those projects that are SEPA exempt.
That means in a neighborhood like Roosevelt that hasn’t reached growth limits yet, the City can impose requirements to build parking where no requirement existed before under SEPA. The regulatory reform legislation exempts parking requirements with one hand, but allows the City to impose more parking for Type I and use decisions with the other hand. A decision to require mitigation of parking impacts are appealable only to Superior Court, so if a project wants to avoid building more parking they’ll fight the City—and NIMBYs—in court.
One Foot on the Gas, One Foot on the Brake
I hate to use an automotive analogy here, but Seattle is driving down the road toward sustainability with one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas; the harder one foot goes down on getting us to our goal, the harder the other one pushes down on being sure we keep imposing rules that limit us from getting there.
Growth targets are absurd and should be disconnected from exemptions to SEPA. I hope that Futurewise, the Association of Washington Cities, and other progressive groups will advocate for this and from the bizarre limits being imposed, de facto, by state planners on the benefits from growth, including limits on new jobs.
At the city level we ought to repeal the new requirements imposed in the recently passed regulatory reform package. The parking reforms should be real reforms. New development in transit areas like Roosevelt shouldn’t have to build any more parking than what the market demands—no matter what neighbors there or anywhere else say. If new homeowners and tenants don’t want parking, why build it? All parking does is add costs to projects, costs that get passed on to new people moving into Seattle.
Sadly, efforts to loosen regulation haven’t succeeded. This is part of what I am starting to call the Seattle Problem: the tendency to push for good things while at the same time regulating good things. It’s time to stop treating growth like a disease and welcome new people to our region and the money and jobs they bring with them; then we’ll get where we say we want to go, a livable, affordable, and sustainable Seattle.