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Arena FEIS: Why Has It Taken So Long?!

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With fans at the end of their rope, why has the environmental review for the arena proposal seemingly taken so long?

360 Architecture

The light at the end of a long SEPA review process is so close that we can touch it. Or taste it, depending on which sense you prefer.

But what is a Final Environmental Impact Statement, why was it necessary, and just what the heck took so long to get this one done?

I know, I know. This would be tremendously more fun with an animated project SEPA application named Appy dancing us through the steps, a la the Bill from Schoolhouse Rocks!, but we'll push ahead...

The United States passed into law the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, taking effect on January 1, 1970. This law requires federal agencies -- but not the President, Congress, or federal courts -- to take into consideration issues with and impacts on the environment for all federal projects. It created the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president on environmental issues, and gave way to President Richard Nixon's founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970.

The law was so influential that other countries have used it as a basis for their own policies.

The biggest effect of the law was the formation and requirement of the Environmental Impact Assessment (now simply Environmental Assessment, or EA) procedure, and the formalized report on the findings of such assessment, known as an Environmental Impact Statement. This effect trickled down to the state level, with many forming their own agencies and developing their own environmental law patterned on NEPA. Washington's State Environmental Policy Act was enacted in 1971.

SEPA REVIEW PROCESS

It might seem otherwise, perhaps because we are a bit too close to this particular project, but Washington SEPA law and its review process are not designed to get in the way of any project or discourage development.

No, SEPA law is simply in place to consider impacts of a project on the environment, discover what those impacts could be, and determine how any adverse impacts can be mitigated to move forward. If a project is killed by results found during SEPA review, it is either because adverse environmental mitigation is not possible or too costly in the desired location.

There are certain exemptions for small local government and very narrow scope, but nearly all projects in Washington state are subject to it. Private projects, such as Amazon's now-in-construction world headquarters, fall into this, as well, because they require permitting from local government.

Alright, Appy, the project guys have submitted you. So, what comes first?

Identifying the big dog, the "lead agency" on a project. This is the party that will actually be completing the SEPA review and is usually a government entity that issues permitting for a project.

Next step is for the project applicant to complete a checklist for the lead agency about potential impacts on the natural and man-made environments. These include air, land, and sea, plants and animals, energy and utilities, existing public services, and transportation, among others.

The lead agency determines if the checklist provides enough information to mitigate adverse environmental impacts. If there are not a lot of adverse impacts, the lead agency can issue a Determination of Nonsignificance (DNS). If there are significant impacts or not enough information available to make a decision on permitting, they can then request an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

STANDARD SEPA PROCEDURE FOR EIS

Let's just put this to rest right here and now. There is no standard length to the overall SEPA review process or its component environmental assessment for an EIS.

From the Washington State Department of Ecology:

The time needed to review your proposal will depend on the permits needed, the complexity of the project, the amount of information already available, and the need to complete additional analysis or studies. In many cases, project review may be completed in two or three months. On the other hand, completing project review for some complex projects may take years.

In the case of the arena proposal, the estimate was 12-14 months, based on projects of similar size and scope. This was only an estimate.

The lead agency will often hire a consultant to conduct the environmental assessment and complete the EIS. They issue a scoping notice to take input from all parties involved on a potential project, as well as the public, and work with the consultant to set the overall scope of the assessment. Issues such as traffic, air quality, and sound impact can be included in the scope.

In addition to the site, alternative versions of the project at the site and/or alternative sites must be included in the EIS to offer appropriate context. A "no action" option, which basically identifies the environment at the site without the project occurring, is also considered.

At a point during the EA, often the half-way mark, the consultant will provide the lead agency with a draft version of the EIS. This Draft EIS is published and a 30-day public commentary period is opened to allow input and questions to identify concerns over the preliminary results. Depending on the extent of the project, an additional 15 days may be added to the commentary period. Comments can be made in public hearings, such as council meetings, or submitted in writing by mail or electronically.

The remainder of the EA process is spent continuing the analysis of the original scope of work, and now also addressing any and all concerns brought up during the commentary period. In the end, the consultant compiles everything into a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and submits this to the lead agency, who then publishes it for public consumption.

The review process allows for a minimum of 7 days from the publication of the FEIS for the lead agency to begin approving permits.

SODO ARENA-SPECIFIC SEPA REVIEW

The Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Seattle, King County, and investor Chris Hansen's arena group was completed on October 8, 2012. It was signed into effect by then-Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine on October 18, 2012. Almost immediately, Hansen began substantive negotiations with the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise, to secure the team and kick off the arena project.

By numerous accounts, Hansen had potentially been courting the reluctant Maloofs to sell for most of 2012, during the negotiation process for the MOU. Due to that potential, and with the SoDo location identified as the preferred site for the project, SEPA review process was heavily considered in the crafting of the MOU. Section 5 identifies aspects of the scope of the SEPA review needed:

5. SEPA. The Parties acknowledge that the Project is subject to review and potential mitigation under various laws, including the State Environmental Policy Act, Chapter 43.21C of the Revised Code of Washington ("RCW"), and the state and local implementing rules promulgated thereunder (collectively, "SEPA"). Before the City and County Councils consider approval of the Umbrella Agreement and any Transaction Documents, the City and County will complete a full SEPA review, including consideration of one or more alternative sites, a comprehensive traffic impact analysis, impacts to freight mobility, Port terminal operations, and identification of possible mitigating actions, such as improvements to freight mobility, and improved pedestrian connections between the Arena and the International District light rail station, the Stadium light rail station, the SODO light rail station, and Pioneer Square. The City and County anticipate that alternatives considered as part of the SEPA review will include a "no action" alternative and an alternative site at Seattle Center. The City or County may not take any action within the meaning of SEPA except as authorized by law, and nothing in this MOU is intended to limit the City’s or County's exercise of substantive SEPA authority. Consistent with Section 4 of this MOU, ArenaCo will reimburse the City for the costs incurred by the City as part of the SEPA review and will be responsible for funding any required mitigation imposed through SEPA substantive authority.

The city's Department of Planning & Development is the lead agency on the review. The review roughly began in October 2012, with an estimated end date of November 2013.

Five options are considered in the review. Technically, the project is identified as a private project, even with the consideration of public financing, because it was started and presented by Hansen's group. A private project actually only requires additional options at the preferred site, as well as the "no action" option, when completing an EIS.

A public project would need off-site alternatives, and this was something the city and county voluntarily added to the arena EIS to be as comprehensive as possible.

The five options under consideration: a 20,000-seat arena at the SoDo location (the preferred option); an 18,000-seat alternative arena at the SoDo location; a 20,000-seat arena at the KeyArena site at Seattle Center; a 20,000-seat arena at the Memorial Stadium site near the Center; and the "no action" option. An economic impact analysis is also included to determine the financial impacts to Port of Seattle operations, freight mobility, and industrial concerns in the Duwamish Manufacturing/Industrial Center (MIC) in which SoDo sits.

Hansen applied for a Master Use Permit for the project with DPD on April 30, 2013, in anticipation of a Seattle-positive outcome of the fight for the Kings. The MUP would require completed SEPA review to be issued.

Then, everything went to hell in a hand-basket regarding the purchase of the Kings.

SO, WHY SO LONG?

Well, Appy...

When the Kings opportunity fizzled, Hansen, the city, and the consultant pulled their collective foot off the gas of a frenzied process. The Draft EIS, expected to be published in late Spring 2013, was instead released to the public in August. It showed positive preliminary results for the SoDo site, and relatively small negative economic impact to Port operations. To address concerns raised during public comment on the DEIS, the estimated release of the FEIS was pushed from November 2013 to early 2014.

Then, early 2014 came, and it was pushed again.

February arrived with reports about what was necessary to complete the EIS, and rumors began to surface about withholding of information to do so on the part of Hansen's camp. Each month ticked off seemingly with reports of punting the FEIS publication even further, causing fans to foam at the mouth and curse the so-called "Seattle process."

Many began to worry that certain arena opposition forces had convinced some within the city to try to kill the entire project with scores of the proverbial bureaucratic red tape. The narrative that Hansen was intentionally delaying the review, perhaps because he was hearing from the NBA that the potential to get a team in the next few years was non-existent, became the prevalent theory pushed by a number of Seattle media outlets.

With Steve Ballmer leaving to become owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and no word coming from Hansen's corner, it was an easy narrative for people to believe.

Yet, it never really washed with the Hansen we've come to know through this process.

Hansen's made some mistakes, to be sure. Most specifically, the anti-arena campaign donation snafu down in Sacramento. Still, this is a measured, methodical man who places a premium on being informed, considering all angles, and presenting airtight solutions. He approached the city and county nearly four years ago with concepts that greatly informed the finalized version of the MOU.

That confidence and conviction in his planning enabled a lengthy negotiation process to produce an agreement on exploring an arena project. That also led to a potential financial framework to fund the arena that will benefit all, if the project moves forward.

This was only four years removed from a contentious Seattle environment that limply allowed the SuperSonics to leave over arena issues. A complete surprise when it seemed like such a thing would never be possible in our lifetimes.

Why, when we've taken Hansen's cautious and calculated nature as a boon to the Sonics effort and a lucky charm, would we now want to see it as a negative?

He wants this project to move forward without any hitches. Covering all bases in the environmental analysis to make sure it positively stands up to criticism, as well as any potential appeal or legal opposition, clearly falls into the plus column.

News finally broke in September from KING5-TV's Chris Daniels that Hansen had submitted all necessary final review paperwork to the city and consultant, and the report completion period had begun. A specific date hasn't been set, but the FEIS is expected to be published in late January 2015.

That the end is marked in flashing lights is the big takeaway. What was equally important about Daniels' report was the explanation behind the delays. Other projects within the area near the proposed SoDo location had altered the environment, most specifically the indefinitely-delayed deep-bore tunnel project that's set to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and its potential effect on traffic coming into SoDo when, and if, the project is completed and planned tolling begins on the road.

Traffic and parking concerns appeared to lead Hansen to purchase the option on more land in SoDo, potentially the site for his own parking facility, after the Mariners stated they didn't have extra capacity in their parking garage to support other events or facilities in the area. Additionally, a forthcoming Seattle City Light substation in the Denny Triangle will impact power transmission through the Massachusetts St. substation in SoDo near the proposed arena site.

For a comprehensive and current EIS, all of this now had to be considered. Thus, everything was extended by roughly a year.

THE END?

Now, brace yourselves. Once the FEIS is published, the Seattle City Council will review it to determine if it provides enough information for them to make an informed decision on the arena project. The council will also hold two public hearings for comment. If too many questions are raised, they might hire the consultant to complete further review. Also, those who took issue with the scope of the assessment can file an appeal, which could take months on its own.

This is all to say that there could be more waiting.

There is no standard length to environmental assessment or the complete SEPA review. For most of us who will never have to partake in a review, it's something that would never factor into our daily thought process. We have no context for patience.

As hungry sports fans, desperate for the live, in-person sound of the bounce of an official NBA ball on a Green-and-Gold-flecked court, we've lived and died by every little development. The seemingly interminable wait and frequent end date shifts punched us in the gut with nary a care. The whole time we've cried, why is this taking soooo long?!

It's not. It's taking as long as needed. It's taking as long as needed to get it right.

Dance, Appy. Dance!