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Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop Toolkit

Washington Land Use Planning (1-WA-a)

The land use planning process in Washington State is primarily delegated to municipalities. The Planning Enabling Act, Revised Code of Washington (RCW), Chapter 36.70 mandates regional planning at the county-level. Through the regional planning process counties adopt comprehensive regional plans (RCW 36.70.320). Counties with populations greater than 50,000 and growth rates higher than 10 percent are required to include additional planning elements to manage growth under the Growth Management Act, RCW, Chapter 36.70A. Public involvement plays an integral role in the regional planning process.

Land Use Planning Process

1-WA-a.1 – Local Comprehensive Land Use Plan

Under the RCW, Chapter 35.63, the land use planning process in Washington State is primarily delegated to municipalities. Local procedure guides the land use planning process at this level. Generally, a local planning commission will formulate the initial plan. The plan will then proceed through the public hearing stage in which the public is given an opportunity to comment and make objections. Local officials ultimately adopt the comprehensive plan after the appropriate process is completed (Land Use Guidebook).

1-WA-a.2 – Establish Phasing of New or Amended Comprehensive Plan Submittal

The Planning Enabling Act, RCW, Chapters 36.70 mandates regional planning at the county-level which results in a comprehensive regional plan (RCW 36.70.320). Typically, county planning departments initiate the regional planning process (RCW 36.70.320). In addition, Boards of County Commissioners may initiate the planning process or reconsideration of a regional comprehensive plan (RCW 36.70.430). When initiated by a board, proposed plans or changes are referred to the relevant county planning department.

Generally, the same process is used whether adopting a new comprehensive plan or amending an old plan (RCW 37.70.410).

The first step in the planning process is to establish a phasing schedule for plan submittal (RCW 36.70A.045). The phasing schedule sets forth the timeline for completing the process described below and adopting a comprehensive regional plan.

1-WA-a.3 - Designate Critical Areas and Natural Resources Land

All counties and cities in Washington are required to designate and protect critical areas and to designate natural resource lands (RCW 36.70A.050). Development regulations are required to assure the conservation of resources on designated lands (RCW 36.70A.60). Required designations include, agricultural lands, forest lands, mineral resource lands, and critical areas. Agricultural lands are those that have long-term significance for commercial production of food or other agricultural products. Forest lands are those that have long-term significance for commercial production of timber. Mineral resource lands are those that have long-term significance for the extraction of minerals. Critical areas are those containing, wetlands; areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water; fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas; frequently flooded areas; and geologically hazardous areas (RCW 36.70A.170). Critical areas must be established based on the best available science as defined by WAC 365-195. Minimum guidelines for classifying and designating lands can be found in Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 365-190.

1-WA-a.4 – Analyze Regional Population

To assure accurate growth projections and effective planning, each county is required to plan based on growth management population figures for the county, and cities within the county, supplied by the Office of Financial Management (RCW 36.70A.110(2)). These figures project population for the succeeding twenty-year period.

1-WA.a.5 – Develop Countywide Planning Policies

A countywide planning policy is a policy statement which establishes a framework from which county and city comprehensive plans are developed and adopted (RCW 36.70A.210). Countywide planning policies assure compliance with the coordination requirements for comprehensive plans. Countywide planning policies must include:

  • Policies to implement the urban growth area aspect of comprehensive plans;
  • Policies for promoting contiguous and orderly development;
  • Policies for siting public capital facilities of a countywide or statewide nature;
  • Policies for countywide transportation facilities and strategies;
  • Policies that consider the need for affordable housing;
  • Policies for joint county and city planning within urban growth areas;
  • Policies for countywide economic development and employment, which must include consideration of the future development of commercial and industrial facilities; and
  • An analysis of the fiscal impact.

1-WA.a.6 – Designate Urban Growth Areas

Under RCW 36.70A.110, each county is required to designate urban growth areas “within which urban growth shall be encouraged and outside of which growth can occur only if it is not urban in nature.” Urban growth areas are required to include areas and densities sufficient to permit the urban growth projected for the succeeding twenty-year period.

1-WA.a.7 – Implement Regional Planning Requirements

All regional comprehensive plans must contain a land use element, a circulation element, and any necessary supporting descriptive material (RCW 36.70.330). The land use element designates the proposed distribution and extent of uses of land. The circulation element describes major transportation thoroughfares and routes. The plans must also contain any supporting map, diagram, chart, descriptive material or reports necessary to explain and supplement the other two elements.

A number of optional elements may be included within a comprehensive plan:

  • Conservation element for the conservation, development and utilization of natural resources;
  • Solar energy element for encouragement and protection of access to direct sunlight;
  • Recreation element showing a comprehensive system of areas and public sites;
  • Transportation element showing a comprehensive system of transportation;
  • Transit element as a special phase of transportation;
  • Public services and facilities element;
  • Public buildings element;
  • Housing element;
  • Renewal and/or redevelopment element;
  • Plan for financing a capital improvement program; and
  • Option for the commission to incorporate additional elements which relate to the physical development of the county (RCW36.70.350).

1-WA-a.8 – Does the County Have a Population of 50,000 or More that Increased More Than 10% Over the Previous 10 Years?

Under RCW 36.70A.040, the growth management requirement provisions of the Growth Management Act, RCW 36.70A apply to all counties with a population of 50,000 or more and increased at a rate higher than 10% over the previous ten years.

1-WA-a.9 – Implement Growth Management Requirements

To address statewide growth issues, the Washington State Legislature determined growth management planning requires a more thorough planning process and twenty-year land use plans. For faster growing counties, the Growth Management Act, RCW, Chapters 36.70A. Requires comprehensive plans to include a plan, scheme, or design for each of the following elements:

  • Land use element designating the proposed general distribution and general location and extent of the uses of land, where appropriate, for agriculture, timber production, housing, commerce, industry, recreation, open spaces, general aviation airports, public utilities, public facilities, and other land uses;
  • Housing element ensuring the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods;
  • Capital facilities plan element;
  • Utilities element;
  • Rural element;
  • Transportation element;
  • Economic development element establishing local goals, policies, objectives, and provisions for economic growth and vitality and a high quality of life; and
  • Park and Recreation element (RCW 36.70A.070).

In addition, counties may also implement additional planning elements through comprehensive plans, including, but not limited to:

1-WA-a.10 - Provide Notice to Affected Landowners and Other Affected Parties

When initiating the planning process, county planning departments must provide notice to affected landowners and other affect parties (RCW 36.70A.35). Numerous forms of notice, reasonably calculated to provide actual notice, are available under the statute.

In addition, a public participation program must be broadly disseminated to the public. The public participation program must identify procedures for early and continuous public participation in the development and amendment of comprehensive land use plans (RCW 36.70A.140).

If any modification to a comprehensive plan or amendment is made after initial opportunity to review and comment, notice must be provided again along with additional opportunity to review and comment (RCW 36.70A.035(2)(a).

1-WA.a.11 to 1-WA.a.12 – Provide Notice of Public Hearing

At least one public hearing must be held prior to approving “all or any part of [a] comprehensive plan or any amendment, extension or addition” (RCW 36.70.380). At least ten days prior to public hearing, notice must be provided to the public through publication in a newspaper of general circulation (RCW 36.70.390).

1-WA-a.13 to 1-WA-a.14 – Hold Approval Vote

Approval of comprehensive plans, or any amendment, extension or addition, requires a majority vote by the county planning commission.

1-WA.a.15 – Certify Regional Comprehensive Plan

County planning commissions submit approved regional comprehensive plans to the Board of County Commissioners to certify the plan (RCW 36.70.420). Any new comprehensive plan, or amendment, extension or addition to any part must be certified by the relevant Board of County Commissioners.

1-WA.a.16 – Regional Comprehensive Plan

The process described above results in the adopting county enacting a regional comprehensive plan. Each plan includes numerous planning elements required by (RCW 36.70 and 33.70A). Under (RCW 36.70A), Washington’s fastest growing counties are required implement regional comprehensive plans that include growth management elements. Regional comprehensive plans guide land use in addition to local comprehensive land use plans developed by municipalities.

1-WA.a.17 – Update Regional Comprehensive Plan

Under RCW 36.70A.130, county planning departments are required to update comprehensive plans every seven years. Through this process of continuing review and evaluation, counties must ensure comprehensive plans remain in compliance with statutory planning requirements.


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