Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Big Ideas/Other Issues: Preliminary Findings

Research Questions:
We would like to give you the opportunity to discuss concerns with the environmental impact assessment process that we have not covered. Are there any further comments you would like to add?

From the perspective of affected industries and businesses, are there other issues and concerns that should be addressed by this study?

Stakeholder Interview Comments
A few big-picture concerns became clear during the interview process. Many interviewees suggested that the process as it is currently functioning is not in alignment with the original intent of the law. Instead of being focused on disclosure of information for the purpose of informing decision making, the EIS system has become overly process-oriented. It was suggested that the intent of the law and the way the process functions should be brought into alignment, either by changing the law or by changing the intent. This is linked to another concern that was frequently expressed: that the process has become too complicated as it has been changed and added to over the years. In trying to do too much, it has become less effective and more bureaucratic.

Another big picture idea that frequently arose was that the process should be more holistic, and better integrated with planning and the concept of sustainability. Long-term planning would obviate the need to take a strong regulatory approach towards development by having clear goals in place ahead of time. A focus on planning might also help to change the currently adversarial relationship between developers and the community. Linked to all the points mentioned above is the issue of the process being used to stop projects, which does not reflect the original intent of the law.

Businesses concerns include the need for more clarity and predictability and consistency in the law. A common concern that arose was that the process is prohibitive for small business, and also for projects that have clearly positive impacts such as affordable housing and renewable energy. The business community also reported finding the process over costly and time consuming, and recommended striving for a process that is both protective and efficient.

Making the process more consistent at different levels was another concern that was expressed in the interviews. More consistency is needed across agencies, between the state and county levels and between the state and federal levels.

A final suggestion that arose, and that was not covered under any of the other topics was that the analysis of alternatives process could use improvement. Analysis could go in to more depth, and there could be more guidance as to what is required. Alternatively, some suggested that the alternatives analysis does not really serves a purpose, as proponents already know what they want to do, and thus this requirement should be removed.

Stakeholder Workshop Results
Session 1: Review of Results
The review of results workshop session showed many were interested in the idea of reviewing the intent of the law. There was also much support for the suggestion that the process be made more holistic and be better integrated with planning. Business concerns, particularly that businesses would benefit from more predictability and clarity in the law, were also ranked as very important. Finally, the idea that there should be more consistency between the state and federal processes was favored by many workshop participants, with the suggestion to make 343 more like NEPA receiving many "votes". Finally, another point that arose was that it is important to remember that a lot of good comes out of the 343 process, and that perhaps this study’s focus on identifying problems and finding solutions is overlooking the ways in which the process works well.

Session 2: Discussion Group and Report Back
The workshop discussion group spent some time discussing the intent of the law. They came to the conclusion that the original intent of the EIS being a disclosure document remains valid. This discussion group reported that perhaps the law is currently functioning in regulatory ways that are not in alignment with the original intent. In particular, the way in which the public uses the process to stop projects does not reflect the intent of the law. This group recommended more public education about the process (possibly by OEQC).

Another problem identified by this discussion group was that there is not a consistent hierarchical structure within the EIS system. It is unclear where one might go to get an answer to a question. Furthermore, when questions are answered by different agencies or authorities, it is unclear what kind of authority those answers have. This discussion group recommended creating a clear hierarchy for the EIS process. Along with increased public outreach, the OEQC could provide clearer guidelines by updating the general guidebook. Additionally, each accepting authority could have it own guidebook for implementation. This discussion group agreed that it is not the law that is broken, but the process.

Some of the other issues included in this workshop were not covered by the discussion group, but still may warrant further consideration. Some of these questions include how to better incorporate planning into the process, making the process more holistic, integrating state/county and state/federal processes, and improving the alternatives analysis.

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