A Powerful Economic Development Tool – The Planned Action EIS Process

Back in the summer of 1973, I was working as a “gopher” in a small engineering firm in Moscow, Idaho, while I attended the University of Idaho.  One day the boss came in and handed me a multi-page form and said, “Here, fill this out. I think you are going to be seeing more of these in the future.”  Little did he know how accurate that statement would be!  The document he handed me was the first generation Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Checklist.  I have long since lost count of how many SEPA checklists I have prepared.

My guess is that many readers of this blog are familiar with the SEPA Checklist, but for those who are not, in short, a SEPA Checklist identifies potential impacts a particular project or land use action will have on its environment.  The checklist covers a whole array of possible impacts, ranging from earthwork and drainage to plants and animals as well as traffic and aesthetics.

History of the PAEIS

But, like anything that has to do with the legalities of land use in Washington state, over the years SEPA grew to be ever more complicated and time consuming as land use law evolved and court cases established certain legal precedents.  By the mid-1990s, it became clear that a more efficient means of evaluating project impacts was needed that took a prospective approach in addressing impacts of potential projects and land use actions in a defined geographic area.  Hence, the Planned Action Environmental Impact Statement (PAEIS) was born.

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Shortly after the PAEIS process was established in state law, the City of Everett was selected to receive a grant from Washington state to cover half the $530,000 cost of preparing the first PAEIS in the state – to include the 4,000-plus-acre Southwest Everett/Paine Field subarea.  The City of Everett, the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County (forerunner of the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County), and Snohomish County participated collectively to pay the remaining cost.  This PAEIS was adopted in 1997.

Nearly Two Decades of Work Under a PAEIS

In 1997, Reid Middleton began working with CSR Associated to plan the reclamation of their 300-acre quarry located roughly a mile east of the Boeing plant, and all within the boundary of the adopted PAEIS.  In the ensuing 10 years, we helped CSR Associated (and their successors Rinker Materials and CEMEX) obtain city approval of binding site plans for seven phases of development and approvals for eight development projects for parties who purchased land from CSR, all processed using the Southwest Everett/ Paine Field PAEIS.

I found that working under the PAEIS brought both predictability and flexibility to the land use review process.  The PAEIS brings predictability by establishing a “development envelope” in which expedited SEPA processing can be enjoyed as long as the project does not create impacts beyond thresholds established in the PAEIS.  Here’s the flexibility part: as long as you stay within the bounds of that envelope (and comply with existing codes), you have considerable latitude in what you propose and know what the mitigation will be for your project impacts.

A Senior Planner’s Perspective

Many of the CSR Associated projects mentioned above were processed for permits and land use approvals by Dave Tyler, a former Senior Planner with the City of Everett.  I recently met with Dave to talk about the City’s experience with the Southwest Everett/Paine Field Subarea Plan & EIS.  Dave commented that the City has granted 92 approvals comprising well over 5,000,000 square feet of private industrial development.  He commented that they have not had to tweak the PAEIS review process much, and that there have been no appeals of decisions under the PAEIS.

Dave said that, all in all, the Planned Action Ordinance has been an extremely useful tool, not just for processing of land use applications in an efficient and expedited manner, but also in fostering economic development in the subarea covered by the PAEIS.

Nearly 20 Years Later

Since its adoption in 1997, the Planned Action Environmental Impact Statement has become a powerful economic development tool used by local jurisdictions to evaluate environmental impacts from a more holistic standpoint while streamlining the review process for projects within the bounds of the area studied.   As I write this, Reid Middleton is beginning work with a team that will prepare a PAEIS for over 200 acres of prime industrial land for a large port district in Eastern Washington.  Our role will be to provide airport-related planning services, prepare development alternatives for evaluation in the PAEIS, and investigate potential impacts to utility purveyors.  Should be fun!