By Marcy Stamper

As the Okanogan County planning commission considers a resolution that preserves size limits for buildings in the Methow Valley that must automatically be checked for potential environmental impact, the state is moving onto the next round of updates for projects exempt from review.

After unanimous comments from residents of the Methow Valley in favor of keeping the lower review thresholds, the planning commissioners decided last month to suggest no changes to the existing policy in the Methow Valley School District.

This means that any residential development in the Methow Valley, whether single- or multi-family, would undergo an environmental review if it contains four or more units. A commercial building or school would be reviewed starting at 4,000 square feet or with 20 parking spaces.

The planning commission plans to recommend raising the limits elsewhere in the county, so that schools and commercial buildings could be as large as 40,000 square feet – somewhat smaller than a football field – without a special review.

The county’s update follows the first phase of a statewide rule change enacted at the end of last year by the Department of Ecology, which was directed by the Legislature to undertake the first comprehensive review of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) exemptions in 20 years.

Over the two decades, other regulations have been implemented that mandate a separate environmental review, such as for building projects near shorelines or in critical habitat, according to Brenden McFarland, environmental review section manager for Ecology. The SEPA changes are intended to ensure that projects are still analyzed for any potential impact to the environment but to avoid duplicative reviews, he said.

Local jurisdictions still have the option of raising or lowering the threshold for environmental analysis at any time, but if they want to exempt larger projects, they must show that other local, state or federal regulations satisfy the requirement for environmental protection, said McFarland.

Ecology is preparing to release a draft of the next round of SEPA revisions required by the Legislature. Those sections of the SEPA rule address 24 additional categories of projects exempt from environmental review, including repairs to private and public structures, changes in appropriations of small amounts of surface or groundwater, real estate transactions and local noise ordinances.

The formal draft will be released in December and Ecology will take public comment in January and hold a hearing in early 2014.

The county planning commissioners will consider their recommendation to the county commissioners about exempt construction projects on Monday (Nov. 25) at
7 p.m. in Okanogan.

For more information on the proposed state changes, see Ecology’s website at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/sepa/rulemaking.