The State of Washington requires cities to responsibly manage and protect the natural environment through the Growth Management Act (GMA), State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and Shoreline Management Act (SMA). Vancouver administers these regulations through the City’s Critical Areas Protection Ordinance, Shoreline Master Program, and the SEPA environmental review process.
State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)
The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) was adopted in 1971 to ensure that maintaining and improving environmental quality is properly considered by government agencies in decision-making. The environmental review process is intended to provide a comprehensive review of a proposal by requiring the identification and evaluation of probable environmental impacts to all elements of the built and natural environment, and the development of mitigation measures that will reduce adverse impacts.
SEPA can address project proposals such as new construction, demolition, landfills, and exchanges of natural resources, as well as non-project proposals such as comprehensive plans, zoning, and development regulations. The SEPA process most often begins when you submit the first permit application for your proposal. A pre-application meeting may be required to discuss your project, permit requirements, and the SEPA process. Some minor projects do not require environmental review, so the lead agency will first decide if environmental review is needed. If the proposed project is the type of project that is “categorically exempt” from SEPA review, no further environmental review is needed. If the project is not exempt, you will be asked to fill out the “environmental checklist,” which identifies the proposal and its potential impacts on the environment. The lead agency will use the checklist to determine if the proposal is likely or unlikely to have a significant adverse environmental impact and will issue a determination.
The City of Vancouver typically assumes lead agency status for most private projects that require permits. The responsibilities of the lead agency include determining whether the environmental impacts of the proposal are likely to be significant after identified mitigation is applied, identifying potential adverse environmental impacts, issuing the SEPA documents, and reviewing all environmental aspects of the proposal.
Critical Areas Protection
The City is currently in the process of updating it’s Critical Area Ordinance.
The Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) requires all cities and counties to adopt regulations protecting critical areas, or environmentally sensitive natural resources that are designated for protection and management. Protection and management of these areas is important to the preservation of ecological functions and values of our natural environment, as well as the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare of our community. The City is required by the state of Washington to regulate Critical Areas in a manner that protect the ecological functions and values of Critical Areas using Best Available Science.
The City currently regulates five types of Critical Areas in its regulations:
- Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present near the surface. Wetlands help to filter pollutants, reduce erosion and sedimentation, recharge groundwater, and regulate stream flow. They also provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including endangered and threatened species. Wetlands also protect against flooding and drought by storing and releasing water.
- Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas (CARA’s) are Areas with a critical effect on aquifers used for potable water. Aquifers are underground layers of rock or soil that hold water. Areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers are those that allow water to infiltrate into the ground and replenish the aquifers. These areas help to maintain and improve the quality and quantity of drinking water sources. They also prevent saltwater intrusion and land subsidence.
- Frequently flooded areas are those that are inundated by water at least once a year. These areas help to reduce the impacts of floods by absorbing and storing excess water. They also provide habitat for fish and wildlife, especially those that depend on seasonal flooding.
- Geologically hazardous areas are those that are susceptible to erosion, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or other natural events that pose a threat to human life or property. These areas help to protect public safety by limiting development in high-risk zones. They also preserve the natural features and processes that shape the landscape.
- Fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas are those that provide food, shelter, breeding, migration, or movement opportunities for fish and wildlife. These areas help to preserve and enhance the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the state. They also support cultural and economic values, such as fishing, tourism, and education.
These critical areas are regulated under VMC 20.740, with the exception of critical aquifer recharge areas which are regulated under VMC 14.26. Spatial information regarding critical areas can be reviewed through Clark County MapsOnline.
The provisions of the CAO apply to any land use or development within an area that meets the definitions and criteria for critical areas as established in the ordinance.
Shoreline Master Program
The Washington State Shoreline Management Act (SMA) was enacted in 1971 for the purpose of ensuring responsible shoreline use and development, environmental protection, and public access. The goal of the SMA is “…to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.” Under the Act, cities and counties are required to prepare and adopt a Shoreline Master Program (SMP) which is used to jointly administer the SMA with the State Department of Ecology. The SMP establishes goals, policies, and regulations for activities on or near Vancouver’s lakes, streams, and rivers to achieve three general goals of the Act:
- Encourage reasonable and appropriate utilization and development of shorelines with an emphasis on water-dependent and related uses that control pollution and prevent damage to the natural environment.
- Protect and restore the ecological function and natural character of Washington shorelines, including the land, vegetation, wildlife, and shoreline environment.
- Promote public access and provide recreational opportunities for the public to enjoy the physical and aesthetic qualities of the natural shorelines.
Vancouver comprehensively updated the City’s SMP in 2012, amendments were completed in 2017 and 2019, and the 2020-2021 periodic review and update to the SMP was approved by the Vancouver City Council and Washington State Department of Ecology with an effective date of June 16, 2021.