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Planning Commissions

This page provides information about local planning commissions in Washington State, including relevant statutes and court decisions, examples of planning commission rules and bylaws, and recommended resources.


Overview

The planning commission provides citizen review and recommendations on planning-related matters to the city, town, county council, or county board of commissioners.

Planning commissions often have two distinct functions. The first involves preparation and revision of the community's comprehensive plan and local land use regulations, such as the zoning or subdivision code. This role is typically advisory to the local governing body, with the planning board forwarding a recommended plan (or ordinance) to the governing body for consideration.

The second, and frequently most time-consuming, function involves review of development proposals, such as site plans and subdivisions. Not all planning commissions are involved in the development review function. In Washington State, when planning commissions perform this role, typically the commission recommends a decision that the local governing body can approve or disapprove of, or approve of with modifications. In some jurisdictions, the planning commission or hearing examiner may hold the public hearing and make a decision on certain types of land use actions. In these cases, the planning commission's decision would be subject to appeal to the local governing body.


Statutes


Public Meeting Procedures


Examples of Planning Commissions

Planning commission ordinances for code cities, non-code cities/towns, and counties are presented separately because of different statutory requirements.

Code City Planning Commissions

Non-Code City Planning Commissions

County Planning Commissions


Selected Court Decisions

Although most of these are older, these court decisions are still relevant to the role of the planning commission.

  • Brinnon Group v. Jefferson County, 159 Wn. App. 446 (2011). From case headnotes:
    When a county's legislative body proposes to change or alter a growth management comprehensive plan amendment recommended by the county planning commission, RCW 36.70.430 does not require the legislative body to refer the proposed change or alteration to the planning commission for further public comment and redrafting before the revised plan amendment may be adopted if the public already has had a full opportunity to comment on the proposed change or alteration.

    A county planning commission's delay in providing the signatures of its chairperson and secretary on a comprehensive plan map containing revisions recommended to the county's legislative body for its consideration and approval as required by RCW 36.70.400 does not render the legislative body's approval of the plan void if the record shows that the delay did not prevent the legislative body from understanding the planning commission's recommendation.
  • Citizens v. Mercer Island, 106 Wn. App. 461 (2001). From the decision:
    The residents contend the planning commission was the highest forum exercising fact-finding authority and that the city council "usurped" the commission's fact-finding role when it entered its own findings.

    The Mercer Island Code does not expressly preclude the council from finding facts. The provision allowing the council as a hearing body to "modify" the decision of the planning commission appears to imply authority to change the findings of fact. But even if deference is due to facts as found by the planning commission, the city council did not disregard or change the basic facts on which the planning commission relied . . . The issue on which the city council differed from the commission was whether the visual impact of the 133-foot pole would alter the character of the neighborhood or otherwise conflict with the variance criteria.

    (see Headnote 7)
  • Concerned Coupeville Citizens v. Town of Coupeville, 62 Wn. App. 408, 417, review denied, 118 Wn.2d 1004 (1991). Excerpt:
    It is clear that under RCW 35.63.060, a planning commission "may act as the research and fact finding agency of the municipality." A commission acting in such a capacity, however, does not possess fact-finding powers that are final and unreviewable by the municipality. This is made clear by the terms of RCW 35.63.120, which empowers the council or board to "modify or disaffirm any decision of the commission."
  • Buchsieb/Danard, Inc. v. Skagit County, 31 Wn. App. 489, 492-493 (1982), aff'd, 99 Wn.2d 577 (1983). Excerpt:
    The planning enabling act, RCW 36.70, authorizes the creation of a planning commission by the Board of Commissioners. RCW 36.70.030. The act provides that reports and recommendations of the planning commission relating to plats, subdivisions and other "official controls" are advisory only, the final decision as to such controls resting with the county board. RCW 36.70.020(11); RCW 36.70.650; Lillions v. Gibbs, 47 Wn.2d 629, 289 P.2d 203 (1955); D.E.B.T., Ltd. v. Board of Clallam County Comm'rs, 24 Wn. App. 136, 600 P.2d 628 (1979). The state subdivision statute, RCW 58.17, is to the same effect. RCW 58.17.100 clearly establishes that the legislative body has the ultimate power to either adopt or reject the planning commission decision on a preliminary plat.
  • D.E.B.T., Ltd. v. Board of Clallam County Comm'rs, 24 Wn. App. 136, (1979). Excerpt:
    The primary issue in this case turns on whether the Board of County Commissioners had authority to reject the recommendation of the planning commission and require that the proposed development comply with SEPA. A planning commission normally functions as a fact-finding tribunal. Chrobuck v. Snohomish County, 78 Wn.2d 858, 869, 480 P.2d 489 (1971); State ex rel. Gunning v. Odell, 58 Wn.2d 275, 278, 362 P.2d 254 (1961). Unless a statute or ordinance provides to the contrary, authority is generally limited to that of an advisory administrative body, and its recommendations are not binding but are subject to final approval by the legislative body of the municipality. 8A E. McQuillin, Municipal Corporations sec. 25.226, at 128 (3d ed. 1976). See also Lauterbach v. Centralia, 49 Wn.2d 550, 558, 304 P.2d 656 (1956); Ferris v. Alhambra, 189 Cal. App. 2d 517, 11 Cal. Rptr. 475, 477 (1961). RCW 35.63, which authorizes the creation of planning commissions and the adoption of comprehensive plans by municipalities within the state, gives to planning commissions only the power to make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners. RCW 35.63.060. See also RCW 35.63.100. The adoption or rejection of such recommendations is in the sound discretion of the Board, see Lillions v. Gibbs, 47 Wn.2d 629, 633, 289 P.2d 203 (1955), and the Board may disaffirm any decision of the planning commission. RCW 35.63.120.
  • Lutz v. Longview, 83 Wn.2d 566, 570 (1974). Excerpt:
    Turning to RCW 35A.63 we find a clear separation of functions and powers between the planning body and the municipal legislative body, the city council in this case. The planning agency prepares the comprehensive plan, RCW 35A.63.060, but "the final form and content of the comprehensive plan shall be determined by the legislative body." RCW 35A.63.072. All amendments, modifications or alterations to the comprehensive plan are determined in the same fashion. RCW 35A.63.073. Only the legislative body is empowered to adopt a zoning map and ordinance. RCW 35A.63.100. Obviously the state has vested the authority to zone and rezone solely in the city council.
    The next step is recognition of the rule that the city council has no inherent power to delegate this legislative authority, State ex rel. Bowen v. Kruegel, 67 Wn.2d 673, 409 P.2d 458 (1965), and no such power has been granted by the statute. In fact, RCW 35A.63.120 authorizes only the delegation of administrative and enforcement responsibilities, thereby negating delegation of the legislative act of rezoning the property in question. Moreover, if the city's position were valid as to rezoning under a planned unit development, there is no reason why the planning commission could not be authorized to do every act of zoning and rezoning. Any fair reading of the statute indicates that such conclusion is totally contrary to the separation of functions clearly delineated in the statute.
  • Chrobuck v. Snohomish County, 78 Wn.2d 858, 869 (1971). Excerpt:
    Whatever descriptive characterization may be otherwise attached to the role or function of the planning commission in zoning procedures, e.g., advisory, recommendatory, investigatory, administrative or legislative, it is manifest under the statutory scheme of RCW 36.70 that it is a public agency, established pursuant to state statute, composed of appointive -- as distinguished from elective -- public officers, a principal and statutory duty of which is to conduct public hearings in specified planning and zoning matters, enter findings of fact -- often on the basis of disputed facts -- and make recommendations with reasons assigned thereto. Certainly, in its role as a hearing and fact-finding tribunal, the planning commission's function more nearly than not partakes of the nature of an administrative, quasi-judicial proceeding, implicit in which is the basic due process requirement that the hearing and fact-finding process must be fair and impartial.

Recommended Resources


Last Modified: February 22, 2019