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Recent Changes to Washington’s Land Use and Planning Laws


August 31, 2017 by Steve Butler
Category: Land Use Administration

Recent Changes to Washington’s Land Use and Planning Laws

While much of their focus was on addressing school funding, the legislature did make some changes to the Growth Management Act (GMA) and tweaks to other land use/planning-related statutes that were signed into law by the governor. This blog post will provide a summary of some of those recently passed bills.

School Siting

At the state level, the GMA includes a strong emphasis on limiting sprawl and encouraging public facilities that need “urban services” to be located with Urban Growth Areas (UGA). There has been a push by a few school districts, however, to allow new schools outside of UGAs, due in some cases to the increased cost and reduced availability of land within UGAs.

After several years of debate over legislative changes, two bills (ESHB 1017 and HB 2243) were recently signed into law by the governor that would allow schools to be sited outside of UGAs, subject to specific conditions. A significant aspect of the new legislation is that an extension of public sewer (along with other public facilities and utilities) to “serve a school sited in a rural area that serves students from a rural area and an urban area” is now explicitly permitted if the following conditions are met:

  1. The school district has adopted a policy about school service area, facility needs, and educational program requirements;
  2. The school district has made a finding (with the concurrence of the county and any affected cities) that the proposed site is suitable, and that there is no reasonable potential collocation on an existing school site for the proposed school and any associated facilities;
  3. The county and any affected cities must agree to the extension of public facilities and utilities to the school to be sited in a rural area;
  4. Any extension of a public facility or utility beyond a UGA must only serve the school (with one exception described below), and the cost of such extensions must be borne by the school district based on a “reasonable nexus” basis; and
  5. Any impacts with the school’s siting are mitigated by the State Environmental Policy Action (SEPA).

The exception mentioned above is this: where a public facility or utility has been extended outside a UGA to serve a school, utility connections to adjacent, non-school properties may be allowed (presumably within 200 feet or so of a newly extended sewer or water line) if a property owner requests it and the county and any affected cities agree to this request. 

Of course, these recent legislative changes only affect counties and cities planning under the GMA. The Washington Department of Commerce (DOC) will be preparing guidance materials about this new law for those communities affected.

Buildable Lands

The GMA orignally required Washington’s six “high growth” counties (Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston) to set up their own “buildable lands” programs. As part of this program, each of the six counties has established a process, with consultation with cities within its boundaries, to determine whether there is sufficient property to accommodate the population growth projected by the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM).

Until recently, buildable lands counties and cities were mandated to complete their data collection evaluation no later than one year before their comprehensive plan is required to be updated.

Almost from the beginning of this GMA requirement, there have been issues raised about the methodology used to determine which lands are “buildable,” with numerous legislative amendments having been proposed over the years. This year, however, a bill (SB 5254) was passed and signed by the governor.

In general, the bill includes new requirements for buildable land reports, updated methodology for sufficient land determinations, and the zoned capacity of land. 

Buildable lands report. This report is to be completed earlier in the comprehensive planning process — no later than two years for those plan updates taking place prior to 2024 and no later than three years for updates occurring between 2024 — 2030.

Updated methodology. The methodology to be used in determining whether there is sufficient suitable land to accommodate the growth allocation for each county and its cities must now:

  • Review regulations (including zoning and environmental) and conditions that could prevent achievement of planned densities;
  • Use a “reasonable land market supply factor” when evaluating land suitability; and
  • Analyze the county and/or city assumptions, targets, and objectives when growth targets are not being met.

Zoned capacity. A new provision states: “The zoned capacity of land, alone, is insufficient to deem land suitable or likely for development or redevelopment within the 20-year planning period.”

Whatcom County. Whatcom was added to the roster of buildable lands counties. 

All of the new requirements mentioned above only apply if there is state funding appropriated to pay for the additional work. The DOC will work with a consultant on preparing guidance materials for the applicable local governments to use in implementing the new law.

Final Plat Approval

Until SB 5674 was recently signed into law, the granting of final subdivision approval had to be done by the local legislative body. This was somewhat problematic because all building, site, and environmental issues are dealt with at the preliminary approval stage, which is usually granted by a local planning commission or staff.

As was summarized from a legislative hearing: “By the time a preliminary plat is approved, all building and environmental issues are resolved. At the final plat approval stage, the process is essentially administrative.”

Accordingly, this bill allows a local government’s legislative body to delegate final plat approval to its planning commission, planning agency, or staff.

What Else is New?

The legislature also provided funding for Phase 2 of the Ruckelshaus Center’s “A Road Map to Washington’s Future” project. The broad objectives of this project are to assess how well the GMA has met its goals, identify successes, and build support for a collaborative approach to addressing areas for improvement

The second phase workplan will involve facilitated discussions with key stakeholder groups, targeted research by the state’s public universities to help inform potential alternatives, and preparation of the final report. Right now, the goal is to finish the Phase 2 work by June, 2019, to allow time for any needed legislative action in 2020.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about land use laws or other planning/local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me at sbutler@mrsc.org.

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.

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