The Spokane Valley City Council took the first step Tuesday to allow more construction projects to avoid a State Environmental Policy Act review as part of the permit process.
The council gave the nod to city staff to create an ordinance that would adopt new maximum exemption levels for triggering a SEPA review that the state adopted earlier this year. The review includes an environmental checklist; jurisdictions can use the information to impose conditions or deny the proposed project.
Cities and counties can adopt the new maximum levels or default to the much lower exemption levels contained in state law. “We’re increasing those flexible thresholds considerably in some areas,” said senior planner Lori Barlow.
Under current city code, projects of up to four multifamily units are exempt from a SEPA review. The new exemption level proposed is 60 multifamily units. Office, commercial or storage building facilities previously limited to 12,000 square feet and 40 parking spaces would be allowed 30,000 square feet and 90 parking spaces before triggering a SEPA review. Excavation work previously limited to 500 cubic yards would be expanded to 1,000 cubic yards.
The purpose of the new rules is to streamline the permitting process and eliminate whenever possible the four to six weeks needed for a SEPA review, said Barlow. “Fewer projects will need to go through environmental review,” she said.
A review is simply a procedural requirement and in many cases duplicates regulations the city already has in place to deal with any impacts from a construction project, she said.
City rules that require a SEPA review for new subdivisions will remain in effect even if a proposed project comes in under the new exemption levels, said Planning Manager Scott Kuhta. If a property owner wants to rezone land to multifamily housing a SEPA review would still be required even if the proposal is for less than 60 units, he said. “This (exemption) is for something that’s already zoned,” he said.
Councilman Dean Grafos said he was pleased by the proposed regulations. “It saves a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money,” he said.
In other business, the council unanimously approved new language in several contracts is has with Spokane County. The change affects the way the county bills the city for overhead costs. The new formula will save the city money and will also save the county money by allowing it to request reimbursement for overhead costs on federal and state grants it receives.
The contract for District Court services was also amended with the same overhead cost modifications and additionally changed the way the city is charged for each court case.
The move is estimated to save the city about $200,000 year. The city anticipated spending that money on hiring additional public defenders required to meet new state-imposed case load limits, but now may get to pocket the difference, at least for a while. The new case load limits were scheduled to take effect in October but have been postponed to Jan. 1, 2015, said senior administrative analyst Morgan Koudelka. “That does delay any expected impact we thought we might have,” he said. “It gave us a temporary reprieve.”