[Protecting the Environment 97]

Local plan tests how to integrate SEPA with GMA

Herrera Environmental Consultants

Industrial-area planning and environmental protection are two concepts not necessarily known for their compatibility.

Yet here in Seattle they are coming together through a merger of the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the Growth Management Act (GMA), and the city of Seattle's comprehensive planning policies.

The industrial area in question is the Ballard Interbay Northend Manufacturing and Industrial Center (BINMIC). As part of a program administered by the city's Neighborhood Planning Office, Seattle's major urban neighborhoods and manufacturing and industrial centers are developing their own comprehensive plans to help shape their development over the next 20 years and beyond.

One of the primary objectives of the BINMIC planning process is to combine the development of the BINMIC Plan with environmental regulatory processes, effectively integrating the SEPA process with the requirements of the GMA. State law allows such a plan to be analyzed in a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the significant adverse impacts associated with the plan.

The EIS is intended to help streamline and simplify the environmental review of future development projects that are consistent with the adopted plan. The BINMIC Plan/EIS amalgam is among the first of these combined projects, and perhaps one of the most intriguing.

What's BINMIC?

The city of Seattle designated the BINMIC as a manufacturing and industrial center in 1994 through the adoption of its Comprehensive Plan. Along with the Duwamish industrial area south of downtown, the BINMIC is one of only two such centers in Seattle.

The BINMIC was designated specifically to ensure that the city has an adequate supply of industrial land available to promote a diversified employment base and provide high-wage job growth.

The BINMIC includes 971 acres of waterfront and upland property northwest of downtown Seattle. Surrounded by the communities of Queen Anne, Magnolia, Fremont and Ballard, the area is home to more than 1,000 businesses and 16,000 employees. More than half of these businesses are considered industrial or manufacturing, and they provide jobs for some 10,000 workers.

The Pacific Northwest commercial fishing fleet, Fishermen's Terminal, the Port of Seattle's Terminal 91 (used primarily for unloading and distributing imported automobiles, frozen seafood processing and storage, and similar activities), Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad facilities, warehousing and storage, print shops, equipment wholesalers and many other businesses form the backbone of this area. The BINMIC will also be home to the proposed Immunex headquarters facility to be located at the Port's Pier 88 site.

Challenges ahead

The BINMIC Plan is designed to support the growth management policies set forth in King County's Countywide Planning Policies and Seattle's Comprehensive Plan. Both of these planning documents stress the importance of industry to Seattle and the region. These policies led to the city's goals for the BINMIC: retain and promote existing and future manufacturing and industrial businesses and land uses, and add 3,800 more jobs in the BINMIC by the year 2014.

Reaching these goals may not be so simple. The BINMIC faces many challenges. The pressure of rising land prices has spurred the location of other businesses that can pay higher rents, such as craft and artisan businesses. Marinas, restaurants, and retail stores -- including the proposed Fred Meyer store on the vacated Salmon Bay Steel site in Ballard -- and other commercial businesses continue to express interest in locating on and near the water and along the edges of the industrial area.

Transportation in the area is also a concern. Truck access to and from the regional highway system, the poor condition of roadways, and roadway congestion are considerable obstacles for doing business in the BINMIC. The commercial fishing industry faces fluctuations in stocks, stringent regulations, extremely limited seasons and facilities in need of improvements.

The ability to grow is likewise problematic. Many of the growing businesses in the BINMIC require expansion space, which may not be readily available or is too costly. Compounding these problems are confusing and sometimes inconsistent land use development standards and permitting processes, which have caused businesses significant delays, costs and other headaches.

Thus, industrial firms have moved and may continue to move out of the BINMIC area. This could be harmful to Seattle's overall economic health as well, as BINMIC businesses account for a significant percentage of the city's jobs and business and occupation taxes.

The BINMIC planning process and EIS

Faced with these problems, the city hired a consultant team to help plan the area's future. Herrera Environmental Consultants led the EIS effort and prepared supporting land use and utilities reports; Environmental Partners Inc. was responsible for developing the BINMIC Plan, overall project management and environmental cleanup issues; Heffron Transportation developed the proposed transportation policies and improvements; Economic Consulting Services analyzed economic trends and conditions; and Norton Arnold & Janeway conducted a public outreach effort to BINMIC stakeholders and the surrounding communities to identify the primary concerns of and about the area.

The draft EIS for the BINMIC was released in May and examined three general development approaches: emphasizing growth through (1) fishing, marine and waterfront industries, (2) small manufacturing and industrial businesses and (3) advanced technology (high-tech) industries.

A preferred development alternative evolved as essentially a combination of the three development alternatives analyzed -- a sort of "greatest hits" package. The preferred alternative -- the BINMIC Plan -- is presented in the final EIS, scheduled for release this month.

The plan proposed by the BINMIC Planning Committee calls for: significant improvements and access to BINMIC area streets and facilities; improved rail service north of the Ship Canal; policies for improving transit and marine traffic, maneuvering and loading dock policies; and other actions to improve transportation.

Numerous land-use and regulatory changes also are proposed, including proposals to raise the SEPA categorical exemption for construction and demolition of buildings from 12,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, and exempting remedial cleanup actions and tank installations and removals from SEPA review.

Another key element is a proposal to develop area-wide environmental cleanup levels for the BINMIC that would provide incentives for redevelopment of contaminated industrial properties and a release of long-term liability for property owners through the development of a MTCA consent decree with the Washington State Dept. of Ecology.

A balancing act

The BINMIC doesn't exist in a vacuum. The neighborhoods of Ballard, Fremont, Magnolia and Queen Anne surround the BINMIC, and most generally favor retaining and promoting the industrial area. Yet these communities do have some concerns.

For example, neighborhoods have expressed concern that the proposal could bring increased truck traffic through their communities. Other proposals related to landscaping, rezoning and recreational use of the area also raised some concern. The communities' underlying anxiety is that what's good for promoting and retaining industry may not always be good for residential and commercial neighborhoods and uses.

Clearly, there is a great deal at stake here. The trick will be to secure the BINMIC as a viable industrial area for Seattle's economic future while protecting both the environment and the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Peter Sparhawk is an environmental planner with Herrera Environmental Consultants.

Return to Protecting the Environment 97 top page

Copyright © 1997 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.