DISTRICTS ‑- SCHOOLS ‑- ECOLOGY ‑- ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS INVOLVING SCHOOL CLOSURES
Whether an environmental impact statement must be filed by a school board in connection with the closing of any school or other facility will depend on the facts of that particular situation and the extent of the environmental effects which the proposed action may occasion.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
August 29, 1974
Honorable Jeff Douthwaite
State Representative, 43rd District
5518 31st N.E.
Seattle, Washington 98105 Cite as: AGLO 1974 No. 76
By recent letter you have requested the opinion of this office concerning a necessity for the filing of an environmental impact statement under chapter 43.21C RCW, the State Environmental Policy Act of 1971 (SEPA), in connection with a proposal of a school board to close one or more public schools within its district. We answer your question in the manner set forth in the analysis which appears below.
The determination of necessity for the filing of an environmental impact statement under SEPA is governed by the provisions of RCW 43.21C.030 which reads, in pertinent part, as follows:
"The legislature authorizes and directs that, to the fullest extent possible: . . . all branches of government of this state, including state agencies, municipal and public corporations, and counties shall:
". . .
"(c) Include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major actions significantly affecting the quality of the environment, a detailed statement by the responsible official on:
"(i) the environmental impact of the proposed action;"
Since a school district clearly is a municipal corporation,1/ its actions are, therefore, unquestionably [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] subject to this requirement. The question of whether an impact statement is required, however, involves a further, separate, consideration. The proposed action must be major, and it must significantly affect the quality of the environment, in order for such a statement to be required.
In Eastlake Com. Coun. v. Roanoke Assoc., 82 Wn.2d 475, 513 P.2d 36 (1973), our supreme court employed a two step analysis examining first the nature of the action itself and then, as a separate inquiry, the significance of its effects. The court's decision in this case defines a major action as one in which involves a "discretionary nonduplicative stage" of governmental approval. However, the significance of the effect of any particular proposal will obviously depend upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the action to be taken. Accordingly, no generalization about the need of an impact statement in the case of every public school closing can be made.
While the closing of a school or the shutting down of an activity has a passive connotation in contrast to other forms of government action which are positive in character ‑ such as the construction of buildings or highways or the institution of new programs ‑ it cannot be presumed that the cessation of an activity or program is for that reason alone immune from the requirement of SEPA as to environmental impact statements. This act, in terms of its environmental effects, is not likely to be considered in isolation.
On the contrary, the disposition or alternative uses of a "closed" school building will also presumably be contemplated by the agency charged with the decision (i.e., the school board), and such considerations are likely to be significant factors in the decisional process.2/ Other adjustments required by a school closing may include the relocation of students and other personnel with accompanying [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] changes in traffic and transportation patterns within the area affected. Thus, the environmental effect of the closing will not be limited to the fact of the closing itself.
From a procedural standpoint, the courts of this state have clearly indicated that where the omission of an impact statement by a governmental agency is not based upon a sufficient inquiry into the environmental effects that may result from its action, the matter is to be returned to the agency for such consideration upon judicial remand. Juanita Bay Valley Com. v. Kirkland, 9 Wn.App. 59, 510 P.2d 1140 (1973). After the necessary threshhold investigation, the agency may conclude that there will be no significant environmental effects as the result of its proposed action. In such cases it is now a recognized part of an agency's procedure to set forth its findings in a document described as a "negative declaration" as the basis for its conclusions that an environmental impact statement is not require.3/ In such a statement the agency is required only to show that environmental considerations were examined "in the manner sufficient to amount to prima facie compliance with procedural requirements of SEPA."4/
In summary, we conclude that a school board having responsibility for decisions involving the closing of public school buildings is generally subject to the requirements of the State Environmental Policy Act. Whether an environmental impact statement must be filed by it in connection with the closing of any school or other facility will depend on the facts of that particular situation and the extent of the environmental effects which the proposed action may occasion.
[[Orig. Op. Page 4]]
We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General
*** FOOTNOTES ***
1/See, Seattle High School Ch. No. 200 v. Sharples, 159 Wash. 424, 293 Pac. 994 (1930).
2/In the interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321, et seq., (1970) as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (Supp. II, 1972) after which SEPA is patterned, the federal courts have found impact statements necessary in certain sales or leases of government property. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Morton, 458 F.2d 827 (D.C. Cir. 1972); Minnesota Public Interest Research Group v. Butz, 358 F.Supp. 584 (D. Minn. 1973).
3/Washington State Department of Ecology, Guidelines for Implementation of the State Environmental Policy Act of 1971, at 8, Dec., 1972. Some local agencies describe the negative declaration as a "declaration of no significant impact." See, e.g., King County, Wash., Code § 20.44.020(d) (1973).
4/Juanita Bay Valley Com. v. Kirkland, supra.