Like hundreds of other people, I went to the jail “meeting” last night. The whole saga of the way the jail site is being chosen is pretty fascinating. Plus, it’s a lot of money, and a big decision for our community.
A lot of people wanted to talk to the County about the jail, and what they had to say was compelling: we need the right sized jail in the right place at the right cost.
What we heard back from the County, though, was strange and a bit disturbing. The County’s Environmental Impact Report, or EIS, was the major source of information for the public and for the presentation at the meeting. Last night’s meeting turned a few essential principles of environmental impact assessment on their heads.
First, what the heck did the environmental impact assessment look at? It’s supposed to look at a range of alternatives, and apparently this EIS didn’t even look at any alternatives that the County is now planning to pursue. By the end of the meeting, everybody on the podium was running away from the 800+-bed jail examined by the EIS as fast as they could. A 600-bed jail, they insisted, was what we want.
The point of an environmental impact assessment is to ferret out the alternative that will do the job with the least possible impact on the environment. Or, as the SEPA regulations say, the purpose is to “inform decision makers and the public of reasonable alternatives” that would “avoid or minimize adverse impacts.” To make sure that decisionmakers get the idea, the regulations emphasize that a “reasonable” alternative is “an action that could feasibly attain or approximate a proposal's objectives, but at a lower environmental cost or decreased level of environmental degradation.”
Didn’t anybody even think to look at the impacts of a 600-bed jail in the EIS?
Some people up on the podium said that it was fine that the EIS didn’t look at alternatives that would reduce environmental impacts because the law requires a “worst case scenario.” But the "worst case scenario” only applies when information about the impacts of alternatives is unavailable or incomplete. If the County couldn’t find out what the impacts of its “reasonable alternatives” would be, because of scientific uncertainty or expense, then it could rely on the “worst case scenario” language (linked here).
The jail is a big project, but its impacts can be predicted. There isn’t a lot of uncertainty about what happens when you build in wetlands, far from infrastructure. The “worst case scenario” provision just doesn’t apply to the selection of alternatives.
So the EIS was fundamentally flawed as an informational document. It looks like the process was equally flawed. There was testimony that 70 people had petitioned for a public hearing on the EIS, and that the County had refused to hold a hearing. When 50 or more people petition for a public hearing, the regulations say that a hearing must be held. The hearing has to be held within 50 days of the date that the EIS was issued. The EIS was issued on October 18, 2010.
And no public hearing was held.
But wait a minute, you might say. Wasn’t last night’s meeting a hearing?
Well, no. Not formally, and it was not intended to function as a hearing.
Formally, the meeting was presented to the public as just that – a meeting – with “audience participation.” Here’s the notice. It wasn’t noticed as a hearing.
Once it became clear that the County might have violated the law by not holding a public hearing on the EIS, there were some efforts to backtrack. It was suggested that last night’s meeting was, in fact, a hearing, despite the fact that it didn’t happen within 50 days of the EIS issuance and it wasn’t noticed as a hearing. The County referred to a part of the law that allows a public hearing on an EIS to be held when there is a public hearing on a development permit.
The problem, of course, was that last night’s meeting wasn’t a public hearing on a development permit. It simply wasn’t a public hearing in any legal sense.
Why does that matter? It matters because the County is supposed to want to listen to the public. At the start of the meeting, it was clear that the meeting’s purpose was to inform the public, not the other way around. There was a half hour presentation, and then when audience members got up to speak, somebody on the podium would inform them of the County's position. That’s not a “hearing,” that’s a rationalization of a decision already made.
“The public” noticed this, of course, and got a little feisty, and the folks on the podium backed off. Then the “meeting” started to function as a “hearing.” This was thanks to all those who put in the time and energy to make the County hear the public.
Perhaps the County will do things differently next time. Better late than never – but what a costly lesson this has been. In addition to the large monetary cost of preparing an EIS that didn’t serve its purpose, and in addition to the public time invested, there’s the cost of delay. As everybody agreed at the meeting, we need a new jail. Going about it the right way will ultimately be faster than trying to cut corners.