By Armand Resto-Spotts, Attorney
This article was originally published in the March 27, 2020 edition of the Vancouver Business Journal.
The attorneys and staff at Jordan Ramis PC wish everyone the best during these difficult times. We are very aware of the difficulties that the COVID-19 outbreak is causing for wide swaths of our friends, clients, and economy. Although the following article does not address this outbreak, we are doing our part to be a trusted advisor to our clients during this crisis. In addition, we are doing our best to conduct “business as usual” in an effort to serve our clients and drive our economy forward during the crisis. To that end, we offer this article on an emerging topic that has long-term societal importance.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently published its “Plan for Climate Resilience,” (Plan) which outlined the agency’s plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change today and into the future. DNR highlighted research demonstrating that the state will only continue to experience those impacts from climate change, for example, reductions in snowpack, lower summer stream flow, and sea-level rise.
In anticipation of worsening impacts, the agency’s Plan applies a proactive, forward-thinking model, providing myriad recommendations and steps that it believes will help mitigate the impacts of climate change. These are wide-ranging recommendations, from legislative changes to practical implementation measures. Recommendations include a further emphasis on renewable-energy projects on state lands, improving local and state infrastructure, and incorporating new climate-based models into assessing water resources and environmental risks, such as landslides.
Although the Plan touches upon all aspects of environmental work—from forest to coasts—the Plan’s suggestions regarding urban, commercial, and industrial land development were of particular note. Acknowledging that urban lands are particularly susceptible to coastal flooding, wildlife damage, erosion, and seasonal peak flows, the agency proposes several local implementation measures, including reviewing and addressing road and infrastructure, “encouraging” climate-informed design, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by “exploring responsible development” in transit-accessible locations.
What does DNR’s new Plan mean for local development review today? Not much, but it is indicative of a clear political shift in the past few years in the state regulatory context to address climate change. Besides DNR, other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and Department of Ecology, continue to ramp up efforts to address climate change specifically in the context of development review. It’s truly a matter of time until local governments are working consistently alongside state agencies to address local development decisions.
In the coming years, local jurisdictions will only continue to emphasize the need for sustainably designed urban development. This may be through specific conditions of approval requiring a certain amount of units or lots to be built with particular materials or serviced through particular energy sources. Municipalities can further encourage this locally by reducing impact fees applicable to a project.
Even more so than today, impacts on transportation and road infrastructure will be a significant point of emphasis for local review. Ideally, through growing state and local collaboration, if the local jurisdiction has the resources necessary to improve roads and invest in alternative methods of transportation (e.g., bike paths, maintain public transit routes), then the municipality has the flexibility to further incentivize the project proponent to design urban development that does not exacerbate traffic or act as a further stressor on road infrastructure.
Further, speaking directly to state and local collaboration, all residential, commercial, and industrial developers should expect to see continued incorporation of climate change impacts into environmental reviews and decisions. As science and information continue developing and further tailored to address specific aspects of development, such as transit or land conversion alone, it is only a matter of time before local governments begin to employ the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) as a strict tool to manage and direct specific types of growth within the state. Today, SEPA’s focus on assessing only negative impacts can delay and stop projects entirely—including environmentally net-positive projects. Ideally, with state agencies implementing thorough guidelines that set the framework for how to assess and mitigate impacts to climate change, local development review will begin leading projects toward a consistent, reliable end. DNR’s master planning document is a necessary first step toward that local implementation.
Armand Resto-Spotts is an attorney in the Jordan Ramis PC land use and development practice group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 567-3900.
Thank you for your interest in this article. The information contained in this article is for the general interest of the reader and should not be regarded as legal advice. If you have questions, or to obtain more information on this topic, please contact an attorney in our land use and development practice group.