To create more affordable housing, Tumwater is matching state thresholds for development to limit environmental reviews


The Tumwater Planning Commission is working to match the maximum threshold the state allows for proposed development projects before it requires a review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

The state legislature passed Substitute Senate Bill 5818 in June 2022, which allowed jurisdictions to increase categorical exemption levels for residential development. According to the SEPA rules in the Washington Administrative Code, projects considered categorically exempt do not significantly affect the environment. Developers of such projects are not required to submit documents such as an environmental checklist or an environmental impact statement.

Matching the state-permitted threshold, much higher than what Tumwater allows, is seen by city staff as a way to address homelessness and support affordable housing. At a meeting on April 25, Erika Smith Erikson, a land use and housing planner, explained that the amendments would eliminate redundant environmental reviews, shortening the timeframe needed to evaluate proposed developments.

If the municipal code is to match the maximum thresholds set by the state, housing projects for single-family dwellings would be allowed to have 30 lots without triggering a SEPA review. If the dwellings are under 1,500 square feet, the threshold is higher with up to 100 lots. The municipal code only currently exempts single-family housing projects with nine lots regardless of the individual size of the lots.

For multi-family dwellings, an exemption would be given to a project with 100 units, an increase from 60 units which the municipal code currently exempts.

The amendments are not limited to residential developments. Agricultural projects with an area of 40,000 square feet would be exempted, twice the size of what is exempted today.

Construction of offices, schools, commercial, recreational, service, and storage buildings are exempted if they cover less than 30,000 square feet and have 90 parking spaces, three times what is currently allowed as the maximum.

Landfills and excavations of 1,000 cubic yards are also exempted, four times the threshold today. Parking spaces are also completely exempted from a SEPA review, in contrast with the current code, which only exempts parking lots with up to 30 spaces.

City staff is also proposing to amend public notice requirements so that notices of applications will be required for specific projects within a certain threshold. They are also in the process of reviewing if changes have to be made for traffic concurrency requirements. Erikson explained that traffic concurrency requirements ensure that standards for transportation services are achieved when a new development is proposed.

She told the commission it would take until May to complete the draft of the new ordinance containing the amendments. City staff would then bring the ordinance to the commission on May 23 and set a public hearing on June 17, before the ordinance is forwarded to the general government committee in July.

Commissioner Elizabeth Robbins requested city staff to present a map showing which areas would be most affected by the amendments and where the city staff anticipates new developments to occur. Planning Manager Brad Medrud would also clarify what housing developments qualify as single-family and multi-family.

CORRECTION:  May 2, 2023 -- This sentence was corrected: "City staff is also proposing to amend public notice requirements so that notices of applications will be required for specific projects within a certain threshold." 


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