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Planning


Below are selected “Ask MRSC” inquiries we have received from local governments throughout Washington State related to planning. Click on any question to see the answer.

These questions are for educational purposes only. All questions and answers have been edited and adapted for posting to the MRSC website, and all identifying information, including the inquirer’s name and agency name, has been removed.


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Do you have access to data regarding the percentage of people who are working from home in various cities in Washington State? We are seeking this information as part of our comprehensive planning capacity analysis to plan for office space, home businesses, and jobs-to-housing balance. 
Reviewed: November 2022

Here are some resources that should be helpful:

  • U.S. Census Bureau:
    • Home-based Workers - Notes that the American Community Survey (ACS) includes a question for those 16 and over who were employed and at work in the previous week, on the method of transportation usually used to get to work. Home-based workers are those who reported “work from home” on this question.
    • This recent Census article highlights that the number of people primarily working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021 (with Washington State having one of the highest percentages of home-based workers) and indicates that the Census will release additional ACS statistics over the next few months.
  • Washington State Office of Financial Management (OFM):
  • Washington State Employment Security Department: Employment Estimates - Provides monthly estimates of nonfarm employment, by industry, in Washington state.

Additionally, some cities do their own employment studies (either in-house or through consultants) that would analyze various local employment data to inform their comprehensive plans.

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Is MRSC aware of examples of local comprehensive plans that have tackled issues related to gun safety (not sales/purchase), either in more broad public safety terms or in more specific ways, such as referencing public education, buy-back programs, or other approaches? 
Reviewed: October 2022

Seattle and King County’s comprehensive plans specifically identify gun safety, while other jurisdictions’ comprehensive plans more broadly address violence, crime, and/or public safety (see examples below). Additionally, community health needs assessments and community health improvement plans are often either referenced or adopted by reference in comprehensive plans. For example, the King County Comprehensive Plan references the community health indicators (see violence & injury prevention) that are part of the King County Community Health Needs Assessment, 2021-2022 (see discussion of firearm-related deaths).

Here are some examples of goals and policies from Washington comprehensive plans:

  • King County Comprehensive Plan – In Chapter 4 of the “Regional Health and Human Services” section, see H-102.e and H-209, which include references to firearms.
  • Kirkland Human Services Goals and Policies – See Policy HS-5.3 in the Human Services chapter. It includes as a goal area “A safe haven from all forms of violence and abuse.”
  • Redmond Comprehensive Plan – In the Chapter “Shoreline Master Program,” see SL-46 “Incorporate crime prevention principles in the design of public access to make facilities safe and easy to patrol and supervise.”
  • Seattle Comprehensive Plan (2020) – In the Chapter “Community Well-Being,” see public safety policy CW 5.7 “Work in partnership with state, county, and community agencies to prevent violence, including that associated with substance abuse, and firearms injuries.” Other examples include GS 3.27, CW G5, BL-G15, and NN-P18.
  • Spokane Social Health Chapter – See SH 6 on Safety, and related policies (CPTED, natural access control, natural surveillance, community oriented policing services, etc.).
  • Vancouver Comprehensive Plan – See the Police section in the Public Facilities and Services Chapter, which includes data and strategies around crime and violence.
  • Yakima Comprehensive Plan – See policy 7.4.7 “Encourage community policing, CPTED principles, and community watch programs to improve public safety for both businesses and residences.

Here are a few examples from other states:

  • Oakland Safety Element - Public Safety – Includes policies and actions related to violent crime.
  • Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan – See Goal 5 and related action steps, which include “Follow a public health approach to ending violence by reducing the factors that put people at risk for being involved with violence” and “Expand the use of non-enforcement, community-driven public safety strategies and responses such as restorative practices that can address and repair the harm caused by a crime.”
  • Stockton General Plan – See Goal SAF-1, Safe Community (public safety is a top community priority). Policies SAF-1.1 and SAF-1.2 address violence and crime.

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Can you provide examples of jurisdictions that allow more than one accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on a lot?
Reviewed: October 2022

We are aware of a handful of Washington cities that allow more than one ADU per lot.

And here’s an Oregon example:

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A local church is inquiring about placing a cross on top of the church that is far larger than what is allowed per the city’s sign code. Can the city apply its sign code in this situation? 
Reviewed: October 2022

The city can apply its sign regulations provided it is a uniform application of the code (in other words, all applicants are treated similarly) and it does not impose an unjustified substantial burden on religious exercise. However, you should check with your attorney on this issue.

The law involved is a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) (42 U.S.C. § 2000cc) which impacts land use decisions involving religious organizations. In order to show that a land use regulation – such as a sign code regulation - violates RLUIPA, the church must establish that the government imposed a substantial burden on the plaintiff’s religious exercise. The government is then required to show that the regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

Here are two good resources to review:

Below is one of the Q&As relevant to your question from the Dept. of Justice guidance linked above:

Does RLUIPA exempt religious assemblies and institutions from local zoning laws? No. RLUIPA is not a blanket exemption from zoning laws. As a general matter, religious institutions must apply for the same permits, follow the same requirements, and go through the same land-use processes as other land users. RLUIPA does not pre-empt or replace the normal zoning code. Rather, it imposes a number of safeguards and requirements on local governments regarding zoning that impact religious uses by requiring that:
  • the zoning law or its application not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification pursued through the least restrictive means,
  • the zoning law not treat religious uses less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions,
  • the law not discriminate based on religion or religious denomination, and
  • the jurisdiction not totally or unreasonably restrict religious uses.
When there is a conflict between RLUIPA and the zoning code or how it is applied, RLUIPA, as a federal civil rights law, takes precedence and the zoning law must give way. So long as a municipality applies its codes uniformly and does not impose an unjustified substantial burden on religious exercise, it may apply traditional zoning concerns – such as regulations addressing traffic, hours of use, parking, maximum capacity, intensity of use, setbacks, frontage – to religious uses just as they are applied to any other land uses.

Again, we recommend discussing the question with your city attorney. Our guidance at MRSC is general and not intended to substitute for the advice of your legal counsel.

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Our Traffic Impact Analysis is based on vehicle level of service, and we'd like to base it on a more multimodal model. Do you know of any other cities that have a multimodal traffic impact analysis program?  
Reviewed: September 2022

Here are a few examples that might be useful:

  • Bellevue Mobility Implementation Plan Report (2022) – See page 70, which discusses Seattle’s use of mode share to determine transportation concurrency. “Under this system, the city requires a transportation impact analysis of a proposed development to determine whether the mode share of the occupied building would meet SOV mode share standards established for different areas…”
  • Issaquah Transportation Impact Analysis Guidelines (2015) – See page 2, which states, “Consistent with the Transportation Concurrency and multi-modal transportation impact fees in the City, these guidelines pertain to all modes of transportation, both motorized and non-motorized. The purpose of these Guidelines is to establish requirements and procedures to ensure timely and consistent analysis.”
  • Walla Walla Transportation Impact Analysis Guidelines (2018) – See page 11, which states that an analysis of multi-modal access and circulation is required.

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We are working on adding "legal lot" code language to our subdivision ordinance. Could you provide examples of other jurisdictions’ legal lot code language?
Reviewed: July 2022

Here are several examples from both cities and counties:

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Do you have examples of local policies for use of city/community reader boards?
Reviewed: April 2022

Many local governments allow use of their facilities on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis to the public, usually for a rental fee and this could include a message on a reader board. Some cities have policies that address how city reader board signs may be used. Here are a few examples:

We recommend working closely with your city attorney in developing such a policy, keeping in mind First Amendment issues. A city reader board should not be used to advertise a political event, especially if the event relates to a political candidate or ballot measure. RCW 42.17A.555 prohibits the use of city facilities to support or oppose political campaigns.

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Once the first phase of a phased subdivision is approved, are subsequent phases subject to the timelines to file a final plat at RCW 58.17.140? What about extension requirements? 
Reviewed: January 2022

Authorizing a subdivision to be developed in phases does not relieve the developer of the statutory deadlines in RCW 58.17.140 or from the requirement to obtain extensions pursuant to local code. RCW 58.17.140(3) establishes deadlines for submittal of a final plat after preliminary plat approval. RCW 58.17.140(4) gives local governments discretion to provide for extensions of that time, through procedures adopted by ordinance. Chapter 58.17 RCW does not actually address phasing of subdivisions. Nevertheless, it is a common practice. Some codes provide specific extensions for phasing, but most do not, other than extensions that might be available for any subdivision. Again, how and whether to grant extensions is a matter of local policy (implemented through an adopted ordinance).

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What steps are required for the city to adopt/implement the Home Fund/Housing and Related Services sales tax pursuant to RCW 82.14.530?
Reviewed: November 2021

There are two methods cities may use to impose the tax authorized by RCW 82.14.530. The first is by submitting an authorizing proposition (by passing a ballot measure resolution) that goes before the voters at the next general election (see subsection (1)(b)(i)(A)). The second method dispenses with the need to put the measure before the voters and gives the legislative body the authority to decide whether to impose the tax (see subsection (1)(b)(i)(B)). The option to impose the tax without voter approval was added in 2020.

See our description of this tax—how it’s implemented and how it may be used-- as well as several examples of ordinances and resolutions on the Housing & Related Services Sales Tax section of our Affordable Housing Funding Sources topic page. The Issaquah and Spokane ordinances are examples where the council approved the tax without putting the question before the voters. So, a resolution would be used to put the measure before the voters, followed by adoption of an ordinance implementing the tax if adopted. And only an ordinance implementing the tax would be needed if the city opted not to put the question before the voters.

And here are search results from our Sample Document Library using the term “RCW 82.14.530”.

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We are currently in the process of updating our sign code. During this process can we stop issuing permits for signage or do we need to abide by our current code?
Reviewed: October 2021

Your current sign code applies until officially amended or interim zoning controls or a moratorium is put in place pursuant to RCW 35A.63.220 or RCW 36.70A.390. Any application will need to be processed under the current regulations.

The city does have discretion whether to enforce against violations of the current sign code if it feels it would be inconsistent with state or federal law. This would have to be determined in consultation with your City Attorney. Again, however, any applications that came in for signs would need to be processed pursuant to your current code.

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Can a code violation hold up permit approval of an unrelated proposal on that same property?
Reviewed: July 2021

MRSC recommends that agencies not tie the issuance of one permit to fixing an unrelated code violation on the property. One relevant case to consider is Mission Springs, Inc. v. City of Spokane, 134 Wn.2d 947, 960, 954 P.2d 250, 256 (1998) (city councilmembers liable for refusing to issue grading permit when “Issuance of such a permit is not a matter of discretion but is ministerial”). So, depending on the type of permit, if the applicant satisfies all the requirements for issuance (including the payment of fees for that permit), then the city should issue the permit. 

There may be circumstances in which denial of a building permit is appropriate if the code violation is related to the building permit. An example of that would be if the applicant has not satisfied a subdivision or short plat condition of approval that is required prior to issuance of building permits. Your agency attorney should be able to advise you in specific situations where you are not sure how to proceed.

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Is there a specified start date for an annual comprehensive plan amendment process?
Reviewed: May 2021

Under RCW 36.70A.130(2), cities and counties may consider proposed amendments no more frequently than once per year, with some exceptions, but there is no set date specified by the State. Instead, it is up to the local government to establish when the annual amendment process starts (and ends 12 months later). We recommend that the established time period be clearly stated, made available, and publicized, so as to minimize any confusion or lack of knowledge about it.

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Can a city ordinance that allows accessory dwelling units preempt an HOA CC&R that restricts them?
Reviewed: April 2021

A Homeowners Association (HOA) Covenants Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) restricting Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) would remain in effect and enforceable even if a city passed an ordinance allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family residential areas. This is because an HOA’s CC&Rs are private rules that each private homeowner agrees to follow as a condition of purchasing a home in a particular development. So, if the city allows ADUs in single-family areas with CC&Rs, the property owner would first need to negotiate with the HOA to change the applicable CC&R (or perhaps, to obtain an exception) before an ADU could be built.

For example, city zoning might allow a three-story building, but a covenant might only allow two stories; the more restrictive covenant, not the zoning restriction, would control the use of the property. The nature of a CC&R is private and does not involve the city. A city ordinance would not preempt or have legal priority over valid private restrictions, unless the CC&R were contrary to law. Enforcement of a restriction on ADUs would be a civil matter between the property owners. A city has no authority to enforce private covenants. See, for example, Viking Properties, Inc., v. Holm, 155 Wn.2d 112, 120 (2005) ("the City has correctly conceded that it 'has no authority' to enforce or invalidate restrictive covenants . . . ."). See, also, Jones v. Town of Hunts Point, 166 Wn.App. 452 (2012).).

State law does regulate Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) at Chapter 64.38 RCW. The HOA law places some limitations on what an HOA can privately regulate. The law prohibits an HOA’s governing documents (i.e., CCRs) from excluding solar panels, certain types of drought resistant landscaping, and adult family homes. See RCW 64.38.055 thru .060. Under the law, the governing documents may not prohibit the display of flags or political signs. See RCW 64.38.033 and .034. And RCW 49.60.224 and .227 relate to removal of discriminatory language in deeds and restrictive covenants. RCW 64.38.028 provides a simple process for an HOA board to remove this discriminatory language from its governing documents. While there is no provision limiting private regulation of ADUs in Washington State, I understand this is something the legislature may consider to promote more housing types in communities.

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Does state law specify when school impact fees need to be collected for development activity?
Reviewed: December 2020

Normally, impact fees are paid before construction begins because they are a condition for receiving a permit. However, RCW 82.02.050 requires cities, towns, and counties to adopt an impact fee payment deferral system for small single-family residential developments, allowing developers to pay the fees after construction instead of beforehand. For details and examples, see MRSC's Impact Fees page.

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We have some folks who would like to purchase property inside the town limits. There are four homes on the property with two homes on each lot. They want to split the ground from two lots to four. Is there any reason why they would not be allowed to do this? To split the ground up would they hire a surveyor?
Reviewed: October 2020

Under state law, a subdivision process is required to divide property into smaller lots. MRSC has a webpage with a lot of information on what is required to subdivide property. The type of process that would apply to the situation you describe is a “short subdivision” or “short plat,” which is a simplified process that can be used for simple subdivisions involving less than five lots. Here is the information from the webpage on short subdivisions:

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).

A drawing prepared by a surveyor is generally required to subdivide property. You should check to see if the Town has a subdivision ordinance that would apply to this situation. The Town will want to be sure that the subdivided lots comply with the Town’s minimum lot size and dimension requirements, and that each lot has access to right of way.

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What is the Multifamily Tax Exemption? Who applies for it, the developer or the city?
Reviewed: March 2020

Under chapter 84.14 RCW, Washington cities with a population of 15,000 or more may establish a tax exemption program to stimulate the construction of new, rehabilitated, or converted multi-family housing within designated areas, including affordable housing. In addition, cities in "Buildable Lands" counties under RCW 36.70A.215 and the largest city in a GMA county where no city has 15,000 or more population may also utilize the tax exemption program.

When a project is approved under this program, the value of eligible multifamily housing improvements is exempted from property taxes for 8 or 12 years. Land, existing improvements, and non-residential improvements are not exempt. Only multiple unit projects with 4 or more units are eligible for either the 8- or 12-year exemption, and only property owners who commit to renting or selling at least 20 percent of units as affordable housing units to low and moderate income households are eligible for a 12-year exemption. If the property use changes in a manner inconsistent with program requirements before the 8- or 12-year exemption ends, back taxes are recovered based on the difference between the taxes paid and the taxes that would have been paid without the tax exemption.

For eligible local governments, it is the city that would adopt such a program and a developer/property owner that would apply to participate in the city’s program.

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Is there a comprehensive list of what type of uses constitute an "essential public facility?"
Reviewed: March 2020

There is a fairly comprehensive description of an “essential public facility” in RCW 36.70A.200(1) (emphasis added):

The comprehensive plan of each county and city that is planning under RCW 36.70A.040 shall include a process for identifying and siting essential public facilities. Essential public facilities include those facilities that are typically difficult to site, such as airports, state education facilities and state or regional transportation facilities as defined in RCW 47.06.140, regional transit authority facilities as defined in RCW 81.112.020, state and local correctional facilities, solid waste handling facilities, and inpatient facilities including substance abuse facilities, mental health facilities, group homes, and secure community transition facilities as defined in RCW 71.09.020.

A more detailed list is set forth in WAC 365-196-550(1), which states in relevant part:

(d) The following facilities and types of facilities are identified in RCW 36.70A.200 as essential public facilities:

(i) Airports;

(ii) State education facilities;

(iii) State or regional transportation facilities;

(iv) Transportation facilities of statewide significance as defined in RCW 47.06.140. These include:

(A) The interstate highway system;

(B) Interregional state principal arterials including ferry connections that serve statewide travel;

(C) Intercity passenger rail services;

(D) Intercity high-speed ground transportation;

(E) Major passenger intermodal terminals excluding all airport facilities and services;

(F) The freight railroad system;

(G) The Columbia/Snake navigable river system;

(H) Marine port facilities and services that are related solely to marine activities affecting international and interstate trade;

(I) High capacity transportation systems.

(v) Regional transit authority facilities as defined under RCW 81.112.020;

(vi) State and local correctional facilities;

(vii) Solid waste handling facilities;

(viii) In-patient facilities, including substance abuse facilities;

(ix) Mental health facilities;

(x) Group homes;

(xi) Secure community transition facilities;

(xii) Any facility on the state ten-year capital plan maintained by the office of financial management.

This seems to be a fairly comprehensive list, but this regulation makes clear that the primary components of the definition of an essential public facility is that it (1) provides a public service; and (2) is difficult to site. See WAC 365-196-550(1)(f). Thus, there may be other uses that fall within the definition, even if they do not appear on this list.

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Would dedication of right of way (ROW) through a parcel create separate lots?
Reviewed: January 2020

It's our position that, unless the city would own the property underlying the right-of-way (ROW) in fee (which is not your typical scenario), then a ROW bisecting a lot would not result in two lots being created. We are not aware of any case law authority for the proposition that establishing a ROW (whether opened as a road or not) across undivided property serves to split that property into two lots. A ROW itself is only an easement (in most cases) and does not carry with it fee title to the underlying property. See, e.g., Christian v. Purdy, 60 Wn. App. 798, 801(1991). See also our blog post: Understanding Municipal Rights-of-Way: From Centerline to Edge (Part 1).

Property can be divided in this state only through the subdivision process in chapter 58.17 RCW or through one of the exceptions to the subdivision process in RCW 58.17.040. If a right-of-way is established through the middle (or any portion) of a lot, the property would remain as one lot and a short plat would be necessary to divide the lot into two, one on each side of the right-of-way (though with the boundary line through the center of the right-of-way).

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Our city council has debated whether we have enough affordable housing. Is there a definitive measurement or formula for assessing the amount of affordable housing a city should have? Are these data points already available?
Reviewed: May 2019

In response to your first question, We are not aware of a definitive formula that calculates how much affordable housing a city should have. With that said, many local governments use existing housing and household income data to develop an estimate for the amount of affordable housing that is needed. Often, this housing need analysis is done as part of a comprehensive plan update process.

A generalized methodology for this type of analysis may be found in the King County Countywide Planning Policies (CPPs), Appendix 4-“Housing Technical Appendix,” which states:

“The methodology for each jurisdiction to address countywide affordable housing need is summarized as follows:

Countywide need for Housing by Percentage of Area Median Income (AMI)

  1. Moderate Income Housing Need. Census Bureau estimates indicate that approximately 16 percent of households in King County have incomes between 50 and 80 percent of area median income; establishing the need for housing units affordable to these moderate-income households at 16 percent of each jurisdiction’s total housing supply.
  2. Low Income Housing Need. Census Bureau estimates indicate that approximately 12 percent of households in King County have incomes between 30 and 50 percent of area median income; establishing the need for housing units affordable to these low-income households at 12 percent of each jurisdiction’s total housing supply.
  3. Very-Low Income Housing Need. Census Bureau estimates1 indicate that approximately 12 percent of households in King County have incomes between 0 and 30 percent of area median income; establishing the need for housing units affordable to these very-low income households at 12 percent of each jurisdiction’s total housing supply. This is where the greatest need exists, and should be a focus for all jurisdictions.” [Emphasis added]

Examples of comprehensive plans addressing local affordable housing needs include:

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Does RCW 39.92 authorize a code city which is not required or choosing to plan under RCW 36.70A.040 to develop a transportation program involving the collection of transportation impact fees?
Reviewed: February 2019

RCW 39.92 could be used by your city to impose transportation impact fees, even though your city does not plan under the Growth Management Act. As you point out, reference is made in RCW 82.02.020 to impact fees under RCW 39.92. The second reference is the operative one for your purposes. RCW 82.02.020 prevents a city from imposing certain fees, charges and taxes, but it also sets out certain exceptions, including:

Nothing in this section prohibits counties, cities, or towns from imposing transportation impact fees authorized pursuant to chapter 39.92 RCW.

RCW 39.92.040 provides for transportation impact fees, provided the requirements of the chapter are met. RCW 39.92.040 predates the Growth Management Act. It was not repealed by the Growth Management Act and, moreover, it is stated that nothing prohibits its use.

Here is an excerpt from our Impact Fees webpage:

Separate legislation (the Local Transportation Act, chapter 39.92 RCW, whose initial passage predated GMA by two years) authorizes all counties, cities, towns, and transportation benefit districts across the state - including those not planning under GMA - to impose transportation impact fees, but MRSC is not aware of any jurisdictions that currently do so under that authority.

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