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Comprehensive Plan Update Process

This page provides guidance on the required periodic updates to city and county comprehensive plans and development regulations under the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA), including useful examples of various steps in the process as well as information on annual (optional) comprehensive plan amendments.

For a general overview of comprehensive plans, see our page Comprehensive Planning.


The Growth Management Act (GMA) provides two mechanisms for updating comprehensive plans and development regulations:

  • Mandatory "periodic updates" – Cities and counties fully planning under RCW 36.70A.040 must complete a periodic update for their entire comprehensive plan and development regulations, including those related to critical areas and natural resource lands. Counties and cities not fully planning under the GMA are required to review and, if necessary, amend their policies and development regulations regarding critical areas and natural resource lands only (see our Critical Areas webpage).
  • Optional annual amendments – Optional amendments allow cities and counties, if desired, to adopt a package of changes to the comprehensive plan and development regulations no more than once per year.

Periodic Update Schedule (Mandatory)

Each Washington city and county must periodically review and, if needed, revise its comprehensive plan and development regulations every eight years to ensure that they comply with the GMA, as per the schedule provided in RCW 36.70A.130.

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All cities and counties are expected to have their comprehensive plans and development regulations (including critical areas ordinances) updated by June 30 of their deadline year.

A jurisdiction may complete the periodic update process before its deadline, but the deadline for its next periodic update would still remain eight years from the original deadline established in the GMA. For example, if a jurisdiction has an update deadline of June 30, 2015, but it completed its update in 2012, it would still be subject to another required periodic update in 2023 (eight years after 2015).

An additional two years for meeting the review and revision requirements is granted to smaller and slow-growing counties and cities that meet certain criteria. County reviews of designated urban growth areas (UGAs) must also be completed according to this schedule, and evaluation requirements for the buildable lands program must be completed by counties and cities one year before those deadlines.

If a jurisdiction needs additional time to complete the update, the Department of Commerce recommends the jurisdiction pass a resolution that indicates: (1) the efforts that have been made toward updating the comp plan, (2) the specific reasons why additional time is needed, and (3) an expected date of completion. Example resolutions are provided below:

  • Mercer Island Resolution No. 1500 (2015) – City was unable to meet June 30 deadline because it also undertook a town center visioning process, and the extension is intended to allow these two processes to happen concurrently.
  • Seattle Resolution No. 31597 (2015) – City was unable to meet June 30 deadline because an appeal of a determination of non-significance (DNS) by the city’s hearing examiner required a revised DNS and more time for public input and future appeals

Other Periodic Update Considerations

Buildable Lands Program

Jurisdictions subject to RCW 36.70A.215, which includes Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom counties and their respective cities, must complete a review and evaluation of their “Buildable Lands Program” at least one year before the comprehensive plan update to provide data that will be used for the comprehensive plan update, per RCW 36.70A.215(2)(b).

For examples, see the Growth Management Monitoring Reports section below.

Countywide Planning Policies

While counties are not required to update their countywide planning policies in RCW 36.70A.130, it is important for counties to review existing planning policies to see if any changes are needed and, if so, to revise as necessary in collaboration with cities. This situation might occur if a county’s periodic update identifies issues that could only be addressed by amending the countywide planning policies. These might include incorporation of new buildable lands data, UGA revisions, or new policies for siting public facilities of a countywide nature, to name just a few examples.

For jurisdictions that are subject to RCW 36.70A.215, amendments to countywide planning policies must be considered if any new information or analysis that impacts the “Buildable Lands Program” is identified during such a review, per RCW 36.70A.215(2)(d).

Periodic Update Process

Practice Tip: We highly recommend consulting the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Growth Management Act Periodic Update webpage and resources.

There are five overall tasks counties and cities must take during the periodic update process.

  1. Establish a work program (including a public participation plan) and schedule
  2. Review, and revise where needed, relevant plans and regulations
  3. Conduct a public engagement program throughout the periodic update process
  4. Submit notice to the state
  5. Take legislative action on proposed amendments

These steps are outlined in more detail below, along with relevant examples.

Work Program and Schedule

It may be helpful to establish a detailed process schedule prior to undertaking your update. In determining the scope of work for an update, it is recommended that local governments use the Department of Commerce’s Update Checklists as the foundation for a work program.

While not required, it is recommended that a work program be formally adopted by ordinance or resolution. This can help preclude challenges later on about whether the jurisdiction should have reviewed a particular comprehensive plan element or development regulation.

Examples of Work Programs

  • Mason County Scope of Work (2015) – Includes brief summaries of each plan element, highlighting specific areas of change. Includes a table-style schedule of activities at the end.
  • Redmond Scope of Periodic Review and Update (2010) – A good work program ordinance including a simple matrix of the scope of work along with a timeline of activities.
  • Thurston County Scope of Work (2017) – Provides a clear outline of timeline, tasks and deliverables
  • Tukwila Resolution No. 1792 (2013) – Combined work program and public participation program, with short summaries of the discussion and decisions about each element and a simple schedule of activities.
  • Tumwater GMA Update Work Program (2015) – Begins with a simple visual timeline of activities, followed by description of expected changes for each comp plan element, including identifying staff and consultant needs.

Public Participation Programs

RCW 36.70A.035 requires that each Washington city and county establish a public participation program and procedures for amendments, updates, and revisions of comprehensive plans and development regulations.

Examples of Public Participation Programs

  • Clark County Resolution No. 2014-01-10 (2014) – Includes work program and public participation program. In addition to standard outreach techniques, the plan calls for using “Innovative Public Involvement Technology” and lists a number of unique ideas.
  • Ellensburg Public Participation Plan (2017) – Utilizes a variety of participation tools including events, interviews, focus groups, and online engagement
  • Renton Public Participation Plan (2013) – Fairly standard outreach plan including public meetings, flyers, and other notices, and an opt-in listserv for interested citizens. Focuses most energy on the plan website as a repository for all information related to the update.
  • Seattle Public Participation Plan (2015) – Includes standard methods of engagement such as website and public meetings, with an added emphasis on social media. Good use of online surveys and “Meeting in a Box” toolkit.

Notifying the State and Adopting Periodic Updates

Once final updates have been agreed upon, the legislative body should take formal action indicating that the community has reviewed and evaluated the comprehensive plan and adopting any amendments or changes to the plan and development regulations.

RCW 36.70A.106 states that cities and counties must notify the Department of Commerce of “intent to adopt” an updated plan or regulations at least 60 days prior to final adoption, which includes sending a copy of the proposed amendments to the department. Upon a request by a local government, Commerce may grant “expedited review” for proposed development regulations amendments, which would result in a reduction of the 60-day review time period if the request is granted (RCW 36.70A.106(3)(b)).

Cities and counties must additionally send a copy of the comprehensive plan and development regulations to Commerce within 10 days after final adoption.

Examples of Periodic Update Ordinances

Growth Management Monitoring Programs

A growth management monitoring program can help local jurisdictions track where growth is going and how well various pieces of the growth management program are working. Information from the monitoring program can help cities and counties to fine tune plan policies and development regulations to better achieve growth management goals.

Below are a few examples of local growth management monitoring programs. Note that with the exception of Mount Vernon, all of these jurisdictions are located within the six counties required to perform a buildable lands analysis.

Annual Comprehensive Plan Amendments (Optional)

In addition to the periodic, major comprehensive plan review and updates that are required every eight years, many local jurisdictions consider proposed amendments on a more frequent basis. Under RCW 36.70A.130(2), cities and counties may consider proposed amendments no more frequently than once per year, with some exceptions.

Rather than adopting changes on a piecemeal basis, proposed amendments must be considered "concurrently so the cumulative effect of the various proposals can be ascertained." Local jurisdictions that consider such amendments typically establish a docket of proposed amendments that will be considered together on an annual cycle (or other specified period).

Examples of Optional Annual Amendments

Recommended Resources

Last Modified: April 02, 2021