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Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop Toolkit

Washington Land Use Planning (1-WA-a)

Land use planning in Washington State is primarily delegated to municipalities. The Planning Enabling Act (R.C.W. §§ 36.70.010 et seq.) mandates regional planning at the county level. Through the regional planning process, counties adopt comprehensive plans. R.C.W. § 36.70.320. Counties with populations greater than 50,000 and growth rates higher than seventeen percent in the previous ten years are required to include additional planning elements to manage growth under the Growth Management Act (GMA) (R.C.W. §§ 36.70A.010 et seq.). Public involvement plays an integral role in the regional planning process. See R.C.W. § 36.70A.035. Projects located near water may require developers to comply with various local city or county government authorizations. For instance, Critical Area Ordinances (CAO) are local protections of wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, and frequently flooded areas. Development within a 100-year floodplain may also create additional requirements.


Land Use Planning Process

1-WA-a.2 – Draft Comprehensive Plan

Under R.C.W. §§ 35.63.010 et seq. and R.C.W. §§ 35A.63.010 et seq., the land use planning process in Washington State is primarily delegated to municipalities. The Planning Enabling Act mandates regional planning at the county level, which results in a comprehensive plan. R.C.W. § 36.70.320. Typically, county planning commissions initiate the regional planning process. R.C.W. § 36.70.320.

The comprehensive plan must include the following:

  • A land use element designating the proposed general distribution and general location and extent of the uses of land for agriculture, housing, commerce, industry, recreation, education, public buildings and lands, and other categories of public and private use of land.
  • A circulation element showing the general location, alignment and extent of major thoroughfares, major transportation routes, trunk utility lines, and major terminal facilities, all of which must be correlated with the land use element described above;
  • Any supporting maps, diagrams, charts, descriptive material, and reports necessary to explain and supplement the two elements described above.

R.C.W. § 36.70.330.

A number of optional elements may also be included within the 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 that relate to the physical development of the county.

R.C.W. § 36.70.350.


1-WA-a.3 to 1-WA-a.4 – Provide Notice of Public Hearing

Before the planning commission approves the comprehensive plan, it must hold at least one public hearing, R.C.W. § 36.70.380, giving notice in a newspaper of general circulation at least ten days before the hearing, R.C.W. § 36.70.390.


1-WA-a.5 to 1-WA-a.6 – Hold Approval Vote

Approval of the comprehensive plan, or of any amendment, extension, or addition, must be by a majority of the county planning commission. R.C.W. § 36.70.400. The approval must be recorded and incorporate the commission’s findings of facts and reasons for its action. R.C.W. § 36.70.400.


1-WA-a.7 to 1-WA-a.9 – Approved Comprehensive Plan

County planning commissions submit approved comprehensive plans to the county’s Board of County Commissioners. The Board may elect to change or add to the comprehensive plan if it determines that such a change is necessary or in the public interest. R.C.W. § 36.70.430. When initiated by a Board, proposed changes must first be referred to the relevant county planning commission. Before making its subsequent report and recommendation, the county planning commission must hold at least one public hearing on the proposed change or addition. Notice of the time and purpose of the hearing must be made at least ten days before the hearing in a newspaper of general circulation in the relevant county. R.C.W. § 36.70.430.


1-WA-a.10 to 1-WA-a.11 – Certify Comprehensive Plan

Any new comprehensive plan, or amendments, extensions, or additions to any part of a plan must be certified by the relevant Board of County Commissioners. R.C.W. § 36.70.420. The Board may approve the comprehensive plan by motion and certify the plan as specified in R.C.W. § 36.70.440.


Generally, the same process is used whether a new comprehensive plan is adopted or an already existing comprehensive plan is amended. R.C.W. § 36.70.410.


1-WA-a.12 – Appeal Decision (If Applicable)

Local governments are not required to provide for administrative appeals. If the local government does provide for an administrative appeal process, the appeal must be filed within fourteen (14) days after the notice of the decision, R.C.W. § 36.70B.110(9), and the legislative body has appellate jurisdiction. When operating by appellate jurisdiction, the decision is based only on the record made before the hearing official. Under this system, the legislative body does not conduct a second hearing, and will not take testimony for its record. Local Planning Resource Guide at 71.


If no administrative appeal is provided, the developer may appeal directly to a superior court, following procedures laid out in the Land Use Petition Act, R.C.W. §§ 36.70C.005 et seq.. See also Local Planning Resource Guide, at 71-73.

1-WA-a.13 – Provide Notice to Affected Landowners and Other Affected Parties/Establish Public Participation Program

When initiating the planning process, county planning commissions in “fully planned” counties must provide notice to affected landowners and other affected parties. Numerous forms of notice, reasonably calculated to provide actual notice, are acceptable. R.C.W. § 36.70A.035(1).

1-WA-a.14 – Establish Public Participation Program

Each county and city that is required to “fully plan” under the GMA must establish and broadly disseminate to the public a public participation program identifying procedures for early and continuous public participation in the development and amendment of comprehensive land use plans. R.C.W. § 36.70A.140. Notice of any hearings must be timely, reasonably available, and reasonably likely to reach interested persons. Any notice must be disseminated at least one week in advance of any public hearing. W.A.C. § 365-196-600(6)(b)(i).


1-WA-a.15 –Adopt Regulations Conserving Critical Areas and Natural Resources Lands

All counties that are required to “fully plan” under the GMA must adopt regulations assuring the conservation of agricultural lands, forestlands, mineral resource lands, and critical areas designated by the Washington State Department of Commerce under R.C.W. § 36.70A.050. R.C.W. § 37.70A.060. Minimum guidelines for classifying and designating lands can be found in W.A.C. § 365-190. These areas are defined in the following sections:


1-WA-a.16 – Analyze Regional Population

To assure accurate growth projections and effective planning, each county is required to plan based on growth management population projections for the county, and each city within those counties, supplied by the Washington State Office of Financial Management. These figures project population growth for the succeeding twenty-year period. R.C.W. § 36.70A.110(2).


1-WA-a.17 – Designate Urban Growth Areas

Each county is required to designate urban growth areas in which urban growth is encouraged. Growth outside of these urban growth areas is permitted only if such growth 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. R.C.W. § 36.70A.110.


1-WA-a.18 – Develop Countywide Planning Policies

The county’s legislative authority must adopt a countywide planning policy in cooperation with the cities located in the county. A countywide planning policy is a written policy statement that establishes a framework from which county and city comprehensive plans are developed and adopted and helps assure compliance with the coordination requirements in R.C.W. § 36.70A.100. Countywide planning policies must include:

  • Policies to implement the urban growth area requirement 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, including consideration of the future development of commercial and industrial facilities; and
  • An analysis of the fiscal impact.

R.C.W. § 36.70A.210.

1-WA-a.19 – Draft Comprehensive Plan

For faster growing counties, the GMA requires the comprehensive plan to include a plan, scheme, or design for each of the following:

  • 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.

R.C.W. § 36.70A.070; see also W.A.C. §§ 365-196-010 et seq..

In addition, the comprehensive plan may include additional elements, including, but not limited to:

  • Conservation;
  • Solar energy; and
  • Recreation.

R.C.W. § 36.70A.080.

1-WA-a.20 – Provide for Public Participation

The county and city must allow for public participation in the comprehensive plan development and amendment process. These procedures must include an opportunity for the public to provide written comments, the opportunity for public meetings after effective notice, and the consideration of and response to public comments. R.C.W. § 36.70A.140.

If any modification to a comprehensive plan or amendment is made after the opportunity for review and comment has passed under the county’s or city’s procedures, an opportunity for review and comment must be provided before a vote occurs, unless exempted under R.C.W. 36.70A.035(2)(b). R.C.W. § 36.70A.035(2)(a).

1-WA-a.21 to 1-WA-a.22 – Hold Approval Vote

Approval of the comprehensive plan, or of any amendment, extension, or addition, must be by a majority of the county planning commission. R.C.W. § 36.70.400. The approval must be recorded and incorporate the commission’s findings of facts and reasons for its action. R.C.W. § 36.70.400.


1-WA-a.23 to 1-WA-a.25 – Approved Comprehensive Plan

County planning commissions submit approved comprehensive plans to the county’s Board of County Commissioners. The Board may elect to change or add to the comprehensive plan if it determines that such a change is necessary or in the public interest. R.C.W. § 36.70.430. When initiated by a Board, proposed changes must first be referred to the relevant county planning commission. Before making its subsequent report and recommendation, the county planning commission must hold at least one public hearing on the proposed change or addition. Notice of the time and purpose of the hearing must be made at least ten days before the hearing in a newspaper of general circulation in the relevant county. R.C.W. § 36.70.430.


1-WA-a.26 to 1-WA-a.27 – Certify Comprehensive Plan/Final Comprehensive Plan

Any new comprehensive plan, or amendments, extensions, or additions to any part of a plan must be certified by the relevant Board of County Commissioners. R.C.W. § 36.70.420. The Board may approve the comprehensive plan by motion and certify the plan as specified in R.C.W. § 36.70.440.

The city and county must provide a written summary of all public comments with a specific response and explanation for any subsequent action taken based on the public comments. This written summary must be included in the final record of the adopted plan. W.A.C. § 365-196-600(8)(a).

Once approved, the municipality adopting the comprehensive plan must notify the Washington State Department of Commerce (“department”) of its intent to adopt the plan at least sixty days before its final adoption. Additionally, the municipality must send a complete and accurate copy of the comprehensive plan to the department within ten days after final adoption. R.C.W. § 36.70A.106.

Additionally, under R.C.W. § 36.70A.130, county planning commissions are required to update comprehensive plans every eight years. These revisions must accommodate the urban growth that is projected to occur in the county in the next twenty-year period. R.C.W. § 36.70A.130(3)(b). Though this process of continuing review and evaluation, counties must ensure comprehensive plans remain in compliance with statutory planning requirements.

1-WA-a.28 – Appeal Decision (If Applicable)

The Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board is authorized to “hear and determine” allegations that a city, county, or state agency has not complied with the goals and requirements of the GMA.

A petition of appeal may only be filed by the following:

  • The state, or a county or city that “fully plans” under the GMA;
  • A person who has participated orally or in writing before the county or city regarding the matter on which a review is being requested;
  • A person who is certified by the governor within 60 days of filing the request with the board; or
  • A person qualified under R.C.W. § 34.05.530 (describing standing to obtain judicial review of agency action).

R.C.W. § 36.70A.280(2).

The Board will issue a final order within 180 days of receipt of an appeal request, although it may extent the review period if necessary to allow the parties to settle the dispute. R.C.W. § 36.70A.300(2). Any party may appeal the Board’s decision to the superior court within thirty days of the Board’s final order. R.C.W. § 36.70A.300(5).




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