State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center) has proposed a bill that would make it easier for homeless service providers to build homeless shelters across the state, including in Seattle.
The city of Seattle consulted with Nguyen on the legislation, which would allow cities to permit homeless shelters without subjecting such projects to a time-consuming environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act. The bill would apply to jurisdictions, including Seattle, that have declared a homelessness state of emergency, and to shelters permitted for three years or less that serve 200 people or fewer and do not require the construction of any new permanent buildings.
According to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) code development manager Mike Podowski, SEPA review can delay the siting and permit process an additional six to eight months “without really adding value, in terms of environmental protection, life safety, or neighborhood fit.”
Once a SEPA review is complete, anyone can appeal its result to the city’s hearing examiner, Podowski added, leading to additional delays.
In July 2018, for example, a group called Safe and Affordable Seattle filed an appeal to stop the expansion of a tiny house village in Interbay, arguing that the city failed to meet SEPA requirements. The appeal, which the hearing examiner denied, delayed the project, which was finally able to open 12 months after it was first proposed.
Nguyen said that tiny home villages and temporary shelters aren’t the answer to the homelessness crisis, “but in lieu of having enough supportive, affordable housing, you need this option.”
The city’s decision to do a full State Environmental Policy Act analysis of a proposed expansion of its bikesharing pilot program, which I reported earlier this week, was spurred in part by a request for a SEPA analysis by Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a long history of filing legal complaints against the city. Campbell sent a letter demanding a full SEPA review on August 6. Sometime that same month, SDOT decided to do the review—a process that likely added at least couple of months to the timeline for expanding bikeshare. SEPA reviews are typically performed for projects that exceed a certain threshold, in terms of their potential environmental impacts. Projects that are generally subject to SEPA review include things like new apartment buildings and projects that involve significant impacts on city rights-of-way. (To give just one point of comparison, new parking lots for fewer than 40 vehicles are categorically exempt from environmental review under SEPA. The bikeshare program does not include any new permanent structures in city right-of-way.)
The city’s experiment with free-floating bikesharing began in 2017, with a pilot program that allowed companies like Lime, Spin, and Ofo to disperse thousands of rental bikes around the city. The city approved new permanent rules for bike share companies in June, and three companies applied for permits—Uber, Lyft, and Lime. Both Uber and Lyft told me that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits.
In her letter to the city, which was addressed to then-SDOT director Goran Sparrman and bikeshare program director Joel Miller and cc’d to Mayor Jenny Durkan, council member Mike O’Brien, and the heads of the city’s parks and neighborhoods departments, Campbell enumerates what she sees as the likely public costs associated with the program. Then she requests a SEPA analysis.
“The sheer number of pieces of business equipment that are to be unleashed upon Seattle’s streets, up to 24,000 bicycles and cycles, coupled with the fact that the majority of the bike-share business operators’ business equipment is to be placed, stored, and located by a number of means, including by mischief or abandonment, at any one time on the City of Seattle’s right-of-ways, parks, lands, public commons, and/or upon private property has immense environmental implications,” Campbell wrote. “At a minimum a SEPA checklist must be prepared and a threshold determination made before the Free-Floating Bike Share Program proceeds.”
The SEPA review wrapped up earlier this month.
Campbell says she asked for the review because she considers the bikes “litter” and believes they’re cluttering sidewalks like so much “trash on the streets.” SEPA seemed like an appropriate avenue, she says, because it pertains to business equipment. “I used to run a bakery,” she says. “What if I took all my bakery carts and set them out on the sidewalks [all over the city]? Realistically, it is that kind of a practice. It’s not the same as, say, a taxi business, where you’re going to take your taxis back to your garage” when they aren’t in use, she says.
I asked SDOT and the mayor’s office several times if a citizen complaint had influenced SDOT’s decision to delay the bikeshare program and go forward with a full environmental review. SDOT repeatedly denied there was any such complaint, saying that the city undertook the analysis in response to the results of two surveys (one by EMC Research conducted back in February, the other an unscientific online poll) and the gist of negative feedback from the public. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson wrote. “I don’t know of any formal complaints.” Later, Hobson added that “the impetus for the SEPA review” was “the final evaluation that included the comments and concerns of community groups about safety.”
That final evaluation, which came out in August, is here. The complaints listed in the evaluation are mostly about bikes being left in places where they don’t belong, as well as the fact that many riders don’t wear helmets—not exactly the type of environmental impacts that the State Environmental Policy Act checklist is intended to address. The checklist, which is standard for all projects, includes questions about the impact a proposed project or development might have on erosion, air and water quality, native plants and animals, shorelines, and environmental health.
On Tuesday, I asked SDOT representatives again whether Campbell’s request was the reason, or a reason, for their decision to do a SEPA analysis. Initially, Hobson responded that this was “the first [she had] heard of” Campbell’s letter and request for SEPA analysis. Later, I heard back from another SDOT spokeswoman, Dawn Schellenberg, who said in an email, “After hearing some concerns, including written correspondence from Elizabeth Campbell … and wanting to do our due diligence, the department decided to complete a SEPA analysis and confirm there were no items of significance we needed to address.”
Conceivably, the city could have decided to do a full SEPA review back in August based solely on survey results and subsequent “concerns” expressed by many citizens, incidentally including Campbell. It’s also possible that there were other specific requests for a SEPA analysis. (I have a records request in to the mayor’s office and SDOT for all communications from the public that contain negative feedback on the program).
But it’s worth noting that Campbell isn’t just any random citizen: She’s a perennial thorn in the city’s side. Over the years, Campbell has filed many complaints against the city, including several that are still working their way through the legal process. For example, the city hearing examiner is currently considering complaints filed by Campbell about a tiny house village on Port of Seattle-owned property in Interbay and a proposal to build affordable housing at the Fort Lawton site near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Campbell, in other words, has been very effective in the past at delaying and deterring projects. This fact alone could give her complaints more weight at the city, which does not typically do full environmental reviews for projects with minimal impact on the natural or built environment, like the addition of a few thousand bikes throughout the city.
The SEPA review concluded with a determination of nonsignificance (DNS), meaning that expanding bikeshare has no significant negative environmental impact. Campbell, who says she was not aware that the city had decided to do a SEPA analysis, says she was disappointed to learn that the window for appealing the DNS closed on October 18; had she known, she says, she might have appealed. “They did a quick and dirty and they didn’t really address the things that I was talking about, which is that [the bikes] are disruptive,” Campbell says.
She says she’s still deciding whether to find another avenue to appeal the bikesharing program. “I’m kind of not known for letting things go,” she says.
Citizens for Livability in Ballard, a group that includes one current and two former presidents of the Ballard District Council, is appealing the proposed Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and has submitted a kitchen-sink discovery request that could end up costing city taxpayers $100,000 or more.
Olympic Manor Community Club representative (and current BDC president) Joe Wert, 36th District Republicans representative Kirk Robbins, and Sunset West Condominium Association representative Steve Cohn filed the appeal, which claims the city hasn’t done an adequate environmental analysis of the proposed comp plan update. That plan, which the city council is considering in conjunction with Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (which itself is being appealed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan) would expand the city’s urban village boundaries to allow more density around neighborhood centers.
The appeal, which you can read in full here, charges that the city made up its mind about how it wanted to shape future zoning before doing a full assessment of the traffic, parking, and “character” impacts the new plan would have on the city’s neighborhoods, and that the proposal allows “upzoning of all [urban villages] into the highs [sic] density provided for in the zoning code with no guidance from the Comprehensive Plan.” It also charges that the plan fails to consider the “fact” that people will always need to own cars, because they’ll always want to drive to the forest.
“Travel mode choice for work or shopping trips has little effect on the individual choice of automobile ownership,” the complaint alleges. (In fact, countless analyses have shown that people with access to frequent, reliable transit are much less likely to own cars). “One of the attractions of the Pacific Northwest is a variety of year-round recreational opportunities. Most of those opportunities for hiking, skiing and other activities are only accessible by private automobile.” Because as everyone knows, Seattle is the only city in the country with natural beauty within driving distance, making it uniquely necessary for every citizen to own a car.
At any rate, the city has asked the hearing examiner to dismiss Citizens’ appeal because this is the first time the group has ever commented on the environmental statement (you’re supposed to raise any objections when an EIS is in the draft phase), and because they can’t identify any specific harm that will result if the 2035 plan goes forward. (The appeal says, vaguely, that Citizens has standing because “the appellants are residents of Seattle and adversely affected” by the land-use changes in the proposal, but the city’s motion for dismissal argues that living in the city doesn’t give you standing to hold up the city’s entire planning process).
As part of the appeal, Citizens has submitted a laundry list of documents it wants the city to provide in discovery, which, if the hearing examiner decides to take up the case, “is probably going to cost the taxpayers at least $100,000 in additional legal costs, if not more,” according to a local land-use attorney familiar with SEPA appeals. The demands include “any auto ownership studies prepared by the city since 2005,” “All parks demand analysis prepared by the City since 2005,” “All travel time surveys or models performed by the City since 2005,” and “The additional number of residential units or commercial, office or other space provided for in all proposed expansions of Urban Centers and Urban Villages,” among nearly two dozen equally broad demands.
Fundamentally, the 2035 proposal is a plan to make room for the 120,000 new Seattle residents who are expected to move here in the next 20 years. The city’s plan is to give those residents opportunities to live in the heart of thriving neighborhood commercial districts. Homeowners who managed to buy in to single-family neighborhoods when they were still affordable, and now dominate groups like the Ballard District Council, are pushing a very different vision.