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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Vancouver weighs relaxed environmental standards to speed housing construction

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 25, 2023, 6:05pm

The city of Vancouver is considering adopting loosened state environmental regulations for new residential developments to expedite housing construction.

Developments in Washington must undergo a State Environmental Policy Act process to ensure they minimize environmental impacts. However, developments under a certain size — which varies by project type and number of units — are exempt from this process.

The state Department of Ecology in February approved changes to these exemption thresholds, and Vancouver staff are hoping to increase the city’s thresholds to the new allowed maximum in hopes of spurring housing development.

Under the proposed changes, multifamily residential developments with fewer than 200 units will be exempt from the SEPA process. The current threshold is 20 units. For single-family housing projects, the exemption threshold will rise from 20 units to 30 units, or 100 units if the individual lots occupy less than 1,500 square feet.

City staff say the change will reduce costs for developers and shorten the application processing period, while keeping environmental impact as a top priority.

“Staff believes the development regulations that apply to residential developments are sufficient to ensure that potential impacts are adequately addressed and that the city should increase the SEPA thresholds to the maximum that is now allowed by the state in order to remove this barrier for many housing projects,” Chad Eiken, director of the city’s community and economic development department, said at a Monday city council meeting.

The State Environmental Policy Act — also known by its acronym, SEPA — helps cities analyze the environmental impacts of proposed construction projects. Often, the act suggests changes to the proposals or environmental mitigation strategies.

The state policy would still apply to projects above the threshold, though the city memo acknowledged that, “it is rare for even large residential projects to have any mitigation measures under SEPA.”

A city memo described the state policy as a “gap-filler,” stating that Vancouver’s development regulations are extensive enough to address likely environmental impacts, such as effects on floodplains, wetlands, trees, traffic impact and other factors.

Though the proposed increases might not directly lead to more housing development themselves, they could make a big difference when combined with other process improvements and incentives, Eiken said.

“This is a small but not insignificant process improvement, and we are exploring other areas to help increase housing production in Vancouver to meet future population growth and exert downward pressure on rents,” he said in an email.

City staff presented this proposal to the Vancouver City Council on Monday, which unanimously supported the changes. City staff will draft an ordinance in the next two months and return to city council for approval as early as this summer, Eiken said.

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Columbian staff writer