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Washington Land Use Planning (1-WA-a)

Information current as of 2021
In Washington State, land use planning is delegated to local governments. The Planning Enabling Act (Wash. Rev. Code §§ 36.70.010 – 36.70.992) and Growth Management Act (GMA) (Wash. Rev. Code §§ 36.70A.010 – 36.70A.904) mandate regional planning at the county level, which results in a comprehensive plan. The developer should contact the appropriate local government to ensure that the proposed project is consistent with planning, zoning, and development regulations. In addition, a developer may need to comply with various local city or government authorizations known as Critical Area Ordinances (CAO) when developing a project near water. 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.1 – Is the Project Located in an Area Subject to the Growth Management Act?

The developer should check the local government website or consult with the county or municipal clerk to determine if the project will be located in an area subject to the Growth Management Act. Under the GMA, land use decisions are made through regional planning at the county level through the use of comprehensive plans. The GMA applies to 29 of Washington’s 39 counties. Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.040.

If the project is not located in an area subject to the GMA, the developer should review the applicable county or municipal zoning regulations to ensure the project will comply with the zoning regulations.

1-WA-a.2 – Review Comprehensive Plan

If the project will be located in an area subject to the GMA, the developer should research the comprehensive plan and any accompanying maps, studies, or other relevant information in order to determine the goals and planning strategies that apply to the proposed project site. Under the GMA, cities and counties must coordinate to ensure harmonization of the plan. Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.100.

The Comprehensive Plan must include:

  • 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.

Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.070; see also Wash. Admin. Code §§ 365-196-010 – 365-196-060.

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

  • Conservation;
  • Solar energy; and
  • Recreation.

Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.080.

1-WA-a.3 – Review Municipal and County Development Regulations

A developer should review the applicable Development Regulations for the municipality and county to ensure the proposed project will comply with the regulations promulgated under the comprehensive plan, which include zoning ordinances and CAO.

Under Washington law, municipalities are delegated the authority to adopt zoning ordinances, defined as “Dividing the municipality, or portions thereof, into appropriate zones within which specific standards, requirements, and conditions may be provided for regulating: The use of public and private land, buildings, and structures; the location, height, bulk, number of stories, and size of buildings and structures; size of yards, courts, and open spaces; density of population; ratio of land area to the area of buildings and structures; setbacks; area required for off-street parking; protection of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems; and such other standards, requirements, regulations, and procedures as are appropriately related thereto.” Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.100.

Counties are similarly free to adopt “Maps showing the exact boundaries of zones within each of which separate controls over the type and degree of permissible land uses are defined” and also “Specific regulations and controls pertaining to other subjects incorporated in the comprehensive plan or establishing standards and procedures to be employed in land development including…the preservation of streets and lands for other public purposes requiring future dedication or acquisition and general design of physical improvements, and the encouragement and protection of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems.”

Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70.560.

1-WA-a.4 to 1-WA-a.5 – Is the Project Within or Adjacent to an Area Designated as Critical?

Under the GMA, counties and municipalities are required to designate and adopt CAO to protect following areas and ecosystems:

  • 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.

Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.030(6).

The specific CAOs are set at the regional level to allow for regional differences in planning. However, a developer must comply with all requirements for alteration, mitigation, or monitoring in the Critical Area. Wash. Rev. Code 36.70A.170.

1-WA-a.6 to 1-WA-a.7 – Does the Project Require a Variation to a Zoning Ordinance?

If a proposed project does not comply with the applicable zoning regulation, a developer may petition for a variance with the county or municipal government.

The petition for variance to a zoning ordinance petition requirements and procedural process varies depending on the jurisdiction. However, the municipal or county zoning board or board of appeal may only grant a variance to a zoning ordinance when the variance “Shall not constitute a grant of special privilege inconsistent with the limitation upon uses of other properties in the vicinity and zone in which the property on behalf of which the application was filed is located.” Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.110; Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70.810 Additionally, the applicant (developer) must show that the variance is necessary due to special circumstances relating to the size, shape, topography, location or surroundings to provide the property with the same rights and enjoyments as other properties in the same zone. Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.110; Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70.810 Finally, the applicant (developer) must show that the variance will not have a detrimental effect to the public health or injurious to the property or improvements in the particular zone. Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.110; Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70.810.

1-WA-a.8 to 1-WA-a.9 – Does the Project Require a Proposal to Amend or Adopt a Comprehensive Plan?

A developer may propose to amend or adopt a municipal or county comprehensive plan. Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.070; Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.073. Adoption and amendments to county and municipal comprehensive plans vary pending on jurisdiction. However, the procedural process for amendments and adoptions of municipal plans must follow the general requirements in Wash. Rev. Code §§ 35A.63.070-35A.63.073 outlined below.


A developer may propose to amend or adopt a municipal comprehensive plan by submitting a petition to the appropriate municipal planning commission or board. Wash Rev. Code § 35A.63.073.The planning commission or board must then submit the proposal to the appropriate government authority for final approval. Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.071.

1-WA-a.10 to 1-WA-a.11 – Publish Notice of Public Hearing (If Applicable)

A municipality may not adopt a municipal comprehensive plan or amendment to the comprehensive plan without notice and public hearing. The appropriate municipal authority must publish notice of the public hearing in accordance with the specific notice ordinance of the municipality. The notice should include the time and date of the hearing, published in a newspaper of general circulation at least ten days prior of the date of the hearing. The governing body may hold successive hearings but need not publish additional notice Wash Rev. Code § 35A.63.070.

1-WA-a.12 to 1-WA-a.13 – Does the Applicable Municipal Authority Approve the Proposal?

, The appropriate municipal body must make a determination within sixty days after the receipt of the recommendation of the planning agency on the project. The municipal body may adopt or reject the amendment or plan in whole or part. If adopted, the municipal body must enact the ordinance. Wash. Rev. Code § 35A.63.073. If the municipal body adopts the amendment or comprehensive plan, the municipal body must file the plan with an appropriate official of the municipality. Wash Rev. Code § 35A.63.072.

1-WA-a.14 – Appeal Decision (Optional)

An aggrieved or adversely affected party may appeal land use decisions to the Growth Management Board for regarding decisions on amendments to the comprehensive plan for areas fully planned under the GMA. Wash. Rev. Code § 36.70A.280.

In areas not fully planned under the GMA, 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 days after the notice of the decision, Wash. Rev. Code § 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 the local government does not provide an administrative appeal, an aggrieved or adversely affected person may seek judicial review of a final order regarding land use issued by the highest local jurisdiction's body or officer with the highest level of authority to make the determination, including those with authority to hear appeals. Land Use Petition Act, Wash Rev. Code §§ 36.70C.005 et seq.. See also Local Planning Resource Guide, at 71-73.

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