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County considers tweaks to environmental review policy

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Cowlitz County Administration

Cowlitz County commissioners will vote Tuesday morning on new rules that will ease environmental review for minor construction projects.

If adopted, the changes would raise the threshold for full environmental impact statements. For example, the new rules would set the threshold for single-family residential developments at 20 units, meaning only projects that exceed that limit would automatically trigger a full EIS under the State Environmental Policy Act.

The threshold for multifamily residential developments would be set at 25 units, according to the proposed changes.

Barns, animal sheds, farm equipment storage structures, and produce storage or packing structures would be subject to a 40,000-square-foot threshold — an increase of 10,000 square feet compared to the current code.

Offices, schools, commercial buildings, recreational developments, service buildings, storage buildings and parking facilities could be 12,000 square feet and have up to 40 parking spaces before triggering an environmental review. That’s up from 8,000 square feet and 20 parking spaces under current code.

Under the new guidelines, the threshold for fill or excavation projects would be 1,000 cubic yards. The threshold now for such projects is 500 cubic yards, according to current code.

The county’s SEPA guidelines were first adopted in the early 1980s. The changes are intended to bring the county into alignment with state law, which was changed to allow higher thresholds in 2012, said Greta Holmstrom, a senior long-range Cowlitz County planner. The county’s proposed changes have been in the works since 2016, she said.

The changes will not make the environmental review process less restrictive for larger industrial projects, Holmstrom said.

Proposals that could potentially result in significant adverse environmental impacts still will go through the state’s “rigorous” environmental impact statement process, said Building and Planning Director Elaine Placido.

“These changes are for smaller projects,” Placido said. “We’re not making changes for bigger projects.”

The proposed changes also will not affect the county’s policy governing critical areas, which include wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, and frequently flooded areas.

In accordance with state law, the county gave the public, tribes and state Department of Ecology 60 days’ notice about the proposed changes and did not receive any comments in response, Placido said.

Commissioners will hold an open public hearing on the new guidelines at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The hearing will be in the Commissioner’s Hearing Room on the third floor of the County Administration Building at 207 Fourth Ave. North, Kelso.


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