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Subdivisions

This page provides a general overview of land subdivision regulations for cities and counties in Washington State. For a list of key court decisions and attorney general opinions, see Subdivisions Court Decisions and AG Opinions.


Overview

The subdivision of land into lots is governed in Washington State by chapter 58.17 RCW and by city and county ordinances adopted under that chapter's authority. The following is a list of key terms defined by these statutes.

  • Subdivisions are defined in RCW 58.17.020(1)  as the "division or redivision of land into five or more lots, tracts, or parcels, sites, or divisions for the purpose of sale, lease, or transfer of ownership."
  • Short subdivisions are defined in RCW 58.17.020(6) as the "division or redivision of land into four or fewer lots, tracts, parcels, sites, or divisions for the purpose of sale, lease, or transfer of ownership." Any city or town may increase the number of lots that can be regulated as short subdivisions up to a maximum of nine. Counties planning under the Growth Management Act may do the same with respect to unincorporated land within an urban growth area.
  • Plats and short plats are defined in RCW 58.17.020(2) as the maps or representations of subdivisions and short subdivisions respectively that show the division of land into lots and the streets, alleys, dedications, easements, etc.
  • A Binding Site Plan is an alternative method of land division authorized by RCW 58.17.035. For more information, see Site Plans and Binding Site Plans or Exemptions section below.

Exemptions

Certain land divisions are exempt from state subdivision laws. See RCW 58.17.040.

These exempt divisions include:

  • Burial plots
  • Divisions into lots above a certain size
  • Divisions "made by testamentary provisions, or the laws of descent"
  • Boundary line adjustments (no additional lots created)
  • Divisions for industrial or commercial use when a binding site plan is approved
  • Divisions for leasing lots for mobile homes when a binding site plan is approved
  • Divisions where a portion of the property is developed as a condominium (and certain other requirements, including a binding site plan, are met)

RCW 58.17.035 authorizes cities and counties to, by ordinance, establish procedures for use of a binding site plan as an alternative to the subdivision process for the divisions identified in RCW 58.17.040 that require approval of a binding site plan to be exempt.


Subdivision Process Overview

Subdivisions, other than short subdivisions, must be regulated by cities and counties according to the procedures in chapter 58.17 RCW.

These statutory procedures establish a two-step process for the approval of subdivisions:

  1. Preliminary plat approval
  2. Final plat approval

Note that both subdivision and short subdivision approval require compliance with local ordinances such as those dealing with zoning, road standards, shorelines, utilities, and drainage, as set out by RCW 58.17.110.


Preliminary Plats

Initial Review and Hearing

Preliminary plat review is a quasi-judicial process that involves an initial review and hearing by the city or county planning commission or agency, which then makes a recommendation to the city council or board of county commissioners or county council. See  RCW 42.36.010 for a definition of quasi-judicial land use actions.

A city or county may establish a hearing examiner system, as an alternative to having a planning commission or agency hear and issue recommendations for preliminary plat approval. See RCW 58.17.330.

Requirements for Approval

Unless the applicant requests otherwise, a preliminary plat must be processed simultaneously with applications for accompanying rezones, variances, planned unit developments, site plan approvals, and similar quasi-judicial or administrative actions to the extent that the procedural requirements for those actions allow for simultaneous processing.

A city or county may not approve a preliminary plat unless the city council, board of county commissioners or county council, or hearing examiner, as the case may be, makes written findings regarding certain matters identified in RCW 58.17.110, including open spaces, drainage ways, streets or roads, alleys, other public ways, transit stops, potable water supplies, sanitary wastes, parks and recreation, and playgrounds.

Time Limitations for Approval

Preliminary plats must be approved, disapproved, or returned to the applicant for modification within 90 days of the filing of the preliminary plat application, unless the applicant consents to an extension. See RCW 58.17.140.


Final Plats

Time Limitations for Submittal

RCW 58.17.140 sets out the rules regarding the time period for an applicant to submit a preliminary plat for final plat approval. The general rule is that the applicant has five years after preliminary plat approval in which to submit the plat for final approval. However:

  • If the preliminary plat was approved before January 1, 2015, the applicant has seven years to submit a final plat. 
  • If a preliminary plat was approved before January 1, 2008 and is not subject to the Shoreline Management Act, the applicant has 10 years to file for final plat approval.

For more details, see MRSC's blog post The Deadline for Filing for Final Plat Approval and the Vesting Period for Final Plats – the Rules Change Once Again!

Also, a city or county may adopt procedures by ordinance for extensions of these time periods. For examples, see Examples of Subdivisions City and County Codes section.

Approval Process

Final plat approval, which must be made by the legislative body (RCW 58.17.100), is in the nature of a ministerial, non-discretionary process; that is, if the applicant meets the terms of preliminary approval and the plan conforms with state law and local ordinances, final approval must be granted. See RCW 58.17.170.

There is no public hearing for a final plat approval.

Requirements for Approval

Among the statutory requirements for final plat approval are:

  • Recommendation for approval by the local health department or the agency that would be furnishing sewer and water;
  • Approval by the city or county engineer;
  • A complete survey; and
  • Certification that all taxes and delinquent assessments for the property have been paid.

See RCW 58.17.150, RCW 58.17.160, and RCW 58.17.165.

Time Limitations for Approval

Final plats must be approved, disapproved, or returned to the applicant for modification within 30 days of filing, unless the applicant consents to an extension. See RCW 58.17.140.

Recording and Filing Requirements

Lots in a subdivision cannot be sold until final plat approval is obtained and the plat is recorded with the county auditor. See RCW 58.17.195.

If the county assessor has adopted an "assessor's plat" for the county, before filing with the county auditor, approved final plats must be submitted to the county assessor for "the sole purpose of assignment of parcel, tract, block and or lot numbers." See RCW 58.18.010.

Vesting Rules

RCW 58.17.170(3) sets out the vesting rules for an approved final plat. The lots in an approved final plat are "a valid land use notwithstanding any change in zoning laws" for a period of five years from final plat approval. See RCW 58.17.170(3)(a).

  • If the final plat was approved before January 1, 2015, the vesting period is seven years.
  • If the final plat was approved before January 1, 2008, it is vested for a period of 10 years from final plat approval.

Also, approved final plats are vested with respect to the conditions of plat approval and with respect to applicable laws for these same time periods, except when "a change in conditions creates a serious threat to the public health or safety in the subdivision." Though, for final plats approved before January 1, 2008, the 10-year vesting period with respect to the conditions of plat approval and to applicable laws applies only if the plat is not within Shoreline Management Act jurisdiction. See RCW 58.17.170(3)(b).

Note that these vesting limitations in RCW 58.17.170(3) do not apply to short plats, which have no vesting limitations. See Noble Manor v. Pierce County, 133 Wn.2d 269, 281-82 (1997).


Short Subdivision Process

No process is set out in state law for approval of short plats. Cities and counties are required by RCW 58.17.060 to adopt by ordinance their own regulations and procedures that provide for "summary approval" of short plats through an administrative process.

Approval Process

Because it must be an administrative process, there is no public hearing for a short plat application, and the legislative body is not involved in the process. To approve a short plat, the administrative personnel assigned to review short plat applications must make the same written findings in RCW 58.17.110 that are required for subdivision (plat) applications.

Time Limitations for Approval

Short plats must be approved, disapproved, or returned to the applicant for modification within 30 days of the filing of the short plat application, unless the applicant consents to an extension. See RCW 58.17.140.

Recording and Filing Requirements

They must be filed with the county auditor and are not deemed "approved" until such filing. See RCW 58.17.065.

Vesting Rules

There is no limitation on the vesting of an approved short plat as there exists with respect to approved final plats. See Noble Manor v. Pierce County, 133 Wn.2d 269, 281-82 (1997).


Subdivisions City and County Codes

The following codes exemplify how a range of jurisdictions in Washington State have implemented state subdivision law.

City Examples

County Examples


Recommended Resources


Last Modified: July 21, 2017