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August 25, 2008

County moves toward stricter SEPA rules

  • A proposed ordinance would require some projects in King County to lower their greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below local, state and federal codes.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    King County is beginning a process that would allow it to deny projects with an “adverse effect on the environment,” and require some projects to lower their greenhouse gas emissions below minimum building codes.

    The ordinance would apply to projects that trigger the State Environmental Policy Act in unincorporated King County or where King County is the lead. If passed, projects would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below “business as usual” to not have an adverse effect, unless they had exhausted all other possibilities. Business as usual means meeting local, state and federal building codes.

    Harry Reinert, special project manager for the Department of Development and Environmental Services, said the goal is to help projects through emission reductions, rather than deny them. The SEPA change, he said, would help the state meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. “The 15 percent is basically what new development needs to do to play its part in helping us achieve that objective.”

    Project teams would present separate estimates for greenhouse gas emissions caused by embodied emissions, energy emissions over the life of a project and transportation-related emissions. The ordinance is open for comments until Sept. 12 and will be presented to the King County Council for approval by Sept. 30. Reinert said the earliest the change could go into effect is the end of this year, but is likely to go into effect next year.

    King County has not yet determined how projects could meet the goal or how it will measure achievements. The ordinance directs the county to create a “green list” or menu of different valued strategies projects could use to meet the reduction target. An advisory committee will be formed to develop these strategies.

    Through ordinance development, the county has involved members of local businesses. Kari-Lynn Frank, local government affairs director for the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, said NAIOP may not agree with all of the final decisions but the county has really heard the concerns of industry. “The county has really been a good partner,” she said. “It's the way things should be done; it's not always the way things are done.”

    Jerry Dinndorf, Seattle District manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, said one of the major industry concerns was developing a menu of options because it allows teams to innovate, especially if there are incentives available to help them. The decision to reduce emissions has been made, he said, now the question is how it will be achieved.

    “If it is implemented through incentives and things that are actually accomplishable, then that's great,” he said. “The fear is that things would be specified that would be impossible to do.”

    The proposed ordinance says development proposals that are estimated to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions may get county incentives including free technical assistance, cost sharing and fee discounts, permit processing assistance and priority processing.

    Reinert said many techniques already in use, like achieving four or five stars under the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties' Built Green Program, would meet the emission reduction. “I think we'll find that many projects probably will have no trouble meeting the target,” he said. “(But for developers that) were going to do the bare minimum they had to do to be compliant with building and energy codes, they'll probably have to do some stuff to meet this requirement.”

    King County has not yet quantified how much this requirement could add to the cost of a project. Many efficient systems with high up-front costs end up saving more money over time but the developer is not often the recipient of those savings. Reinert said if developers have to pay more for their projects because of this change, they're likely to charge more. But he said customers might also pay more because of the long-term savings. He did not think the change would make King County less competitive as a place to develop because location is often the most important deciding factor.

    A-P Hurd, vice president at Touchstone Corp. in Seattle, said she isn't worried about the changes, as long as the program encourages creative and innovative solutions. How it will affect developers, she said, would depend on where they tend to build and what types of buildings they tend to develop.

    King County is a leader in this field and is closely watched by other jurisdictions. In June of 2007, King County Executive Ron Sims issued an executive order, which went into effect last October, requiring the greenhouse gas impacts of a project be disclosed. Seattle jumped on the bandwagon in March, creating a similar requirement and using the same checklist King County developed.

    In May, Jay Manning, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, launched a similar process at the state level. Ecology could begin rulemaking in early 2009 to amend SEPA rules to address climate change. A committee on the state Climate Action Team is also considering similar changes to meet statewide emission-reduction goals.

    Reinert said this decision could help protect developers from possible lawsuits. In other states, like California, lawsuits have forced projects to adopt greener policies because they did not adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions under the California Environmental Quality Act.

    “There's a general consensus that SEPA already requires an evaluation of climate change,” he said. “What' we're trying to do is essentially provide a safe harbor. This is actually providing some certainty that they wouldn't have without something like this.”

    For more information, or to comment on the ordinance, visit http://your.kingcounty.gov/permits/codes/legnews.aspx#climate.


    Katie Zemtseff can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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