Environmental Review - Tweak or Throw Out?

One of Governor Pawlenty’s proposals to trim the state’s ever-growing budget deficit has been to fold the State’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) into the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) and cut a little staff in the process. The idea is apparently to better coordinate the water quality goals of both the EQB and the PCA.

I’m not really going to get into whether this is a good idea or a bad idea. I frankly don’t know enough about the work of the EQB except in one area – residential developments – to talk even a little intelligently about it.

In the area of residential development, the EQB has been noticing a significant increase in the number of Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) being prepared for residential development projects in shoreland areas. An EAW is essentially a fact-finding exercise – a series of questions that a developer and the local government reviewing the proposal are responsible for answering about the impact the proposed development may have on the environment. The purpose of the EAW is to determine whether the potential for environmental impact is high enough to justify a much more extensive study called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

No developer in their right mind wants to go through an EIS. It can cost several hundred thousand dollars and take many many months or even years to complete.

If you’re someone opposed to a particular development however, the threat of an EIS is a pretty big stick to wave at someone. And more and more lake associations, environmental advocacy groups and existing lakeshore owners are using it.

The EQB is now in the final stages of amending its rules to require many residential shoreland developments to go through an EAW process – for projects with as few as 15 units within the shoreland areas. Where opponents of residential shoreland developments previously had to go through a petition process to have the local government order an EAW, they will now simply have to point to the new law.

The question that very few people seem to be asking however, is whether the EAW process really accomplishes anything of value. I suppose if your definition of “accomplishing” something is to prevent a development from taking place at all, then the EAW process could be called successful if it managed to stop a development simpy through making the process more time-consuming and expensive for a developer. I don’t know of many situations where this has actually taken place however (someone please correct me if I am wrong). In my experience, what usually happens is that the project goes through the EAW process, there is a lot of fighting and arguing back and forth, and then the local government pretty much decides an EIS would be overkill and that they pretty much know what the environmental impacts of a residential subdivision are anyways (or can require comments from experts during the regular review process). From that point forward, the proposal is subjected to the minimum requirements of the zoning and subdivision ordinances and it usually goes through very similar to what was originally proposed.

Thus, the only way for an EAW process to be of any value in protecting the environment, is if the local government reviewing the proposal or the developer themselves makes some modification to the development as a result of the information and comments received during the EAW review process (there is a required 30-day comment period once the developer and local government answer all the questions in the EAW).

If 99% of shoreland residential projects never make it to the EIS stage, and if most projects are not significantly altered as part of the EAW process, then wouldn’t it seem more appropriate to focus on improving the local government’s zoning ordinances so they were more protective of the environment? Or better yet, wouldn’t a well thought out Comprehensive Plan (and a coordinated Zoning Map) that guided development to places where it makes sense and keeps it away from places where it does not be a much more effective and efficient process?

If it is a matter of asking more questions during the regular review process (i.e. the questions that are asked in an EAW), those questions can be written into the regular review process. If it is a matter of studying the cumulative impacts of one new development after another on a lake, those studies are better done as part of an area-wide study rather than trying to do it on the backs of a particular development.

It comes down to a basic question – are we interested in feeling like we are protecting our lakes? Or actually doing it in an effective and efficient manner?