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Comprehensive Planning/Growth Management


Washington cities and counties have prepared comprehensive plans for many years; however, growth management in Washington took on new meaning with the passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA) by the Washington Legislature in 1990.

The GMA was enacted in response to rapid population growth and concerns with suburban sprawl, environmental protection, quality of life, and related issues. The GMA has been amended several times, and is codified in many chapters but primarily in Chapter 36.70A RCW.

The GMA requires the fastest growing counties and the cities within them to plan extensively in keeping with state GMA goals on:

  • Sprawl reduction
  • Concentrated urban growth
  • Affordable housing
  • Economic development
  • Open space and recreation
  • Regional transportation
  • Environmental protection
  • Property rights
  • Natural resource industries
  • Historic lands and buildings
  • Permit processing
  • Public facilities and services
  • Early and continuous public participation
  • Shoreline management

In addition to the 13 original GMA goals, the legislature added the goals and policies of the shoreline management act as the fourteenth GMA goal. (See RCW 36.70A.480.) The shoreline goals may be found at RCW 90.58.020.

Twenty-nine counties are either required to fully plan under the GMA or have chosen to do so. These counties make up about 95 percent of the state's population. The remaining ten counties must plan for critical areas and natural resource land only under the GMA.

The GMA provides a framework for regional coordination, and counties planning under the GMA are required to adopt county-wide planning policies to guide plan adoption within the county and to establish urban growth areas (UGAs). Local comprehensive plans must include the following elements: land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, transportation, and, for counties, a rural element. Shoreline master program policies are also an element of local comprehensive plans. Implementation of required parks and economic development elements is on hold until adequate state funding is available. Local comprehensive plans may also include optional elements. (See RCW 36.70A.080.)

The GMA establishes the primacy of the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan is the starting point for any planning process and the centerpiece of local planning. Development regulations (zoning, subdivision, and other controls) must be consistent with comprehensive plans (see separate page on development regulations). State agencies are required to comply with comprehensive plans and development regulations of jurisdictions planning under the GMA. For information on plan updates, see Periodic Update Process for Comprehensive Plans and Development Regulations.

The Growth Management Hearings Board (part of the new Environmental and Land Use Hearings Office) resolves disputes concerning comprehensive plans and development regulations adopted under the GMA. The Governor has the authority to impose sanctions on cities, counties, and state agencies that do not comply with the GMA, as determined by a hearings board.

The GMA is the basis for regulatory reform legislation passed in 1995 to improve how permits are issued in Washington State (see separate page on planning procedures and practices.)

The Washington State Department of Commerce provides contact information for technical assistance on the implementation of the GMA.



Comprehensive Plans

The following featured comprehensive plans have won planning awards or were selected by MRSC staff as good examples.

City Plans

For additional examples, see Washington City and Town Profiles, MRSC. Includes links to local comprehensive plans by jurisdiction.

County Plans

For additional examples, see Washington County Profiles, MRSC. Includes links to county comprehensive plans by jurisdiction.

City Subarea and Neighborhood Plans

  • Bellingham Neighborhood Plans and Zoning - Multiple subarea plans including CBD, university area, and 2013 APA/PAW Planning Award Winner: Fairhaven Neighborhood and Urban Village Plan
  • Bothell Comprehensive Plan - Includes links to multiple subarea plans including the Downtown Subarea Plan - A 2011 Governor's Smart Choices Award Winner
  • Normandy Park Manhattan Village Subarea Plan, 05/17/2012 - 2013 APA/PAW Planning Award Winner - Noteworthy features included integrated EIS and planned action, TDR program, and ready implementation
  • Renton Community Planning including multiple award-winning Sunset Area (Highlands) utilizing a planned action and strategic community investment to catalyze private investment and revitalize the community. Also the City Center Community Plan – 2012 Governor's Smart Vision Award.
  • Richland Badger Mountain Subarea Plan, 09/07/2010 - Master-planned community
  • Tacoma South Downtown Subarea Plan – Winner Governor’s 2014 Smart Vision Award - Comprehensive Planning and 2014 APA/PAW Award for Excellence – Comprehensive Planning – Large Jurisdiction

County Subarea and Neighborhood Plans

Frequently Asked Questions

Last Modified: July 26, 2016