This page provides answers to some of the common and frequently asked questions we have received regarding annexation regulation in Washington State.
It is part of MRSC's series Annexation in Washington State.
To view the answer to a question, simply click on the question. If your question is not addressed here or you wish to contact one of our legal consultants directly, eligible government agencies can Ask MRSC.
Yes, it is both possible and recommended for a city to “pre-designate” or “pre-zone” a future annexation area. For code cities, the authority is at RCW 35A.14.330 and for first and second class cities and towns the authority is at RCW 35.13.177.
Pre-zoning is often done in coordination with the county through the interlocal agreement process. MRSC includes examples of such interlocal agreements on our Annexation page.
Our Annexation Handbook describes:
- Procedure for Adoption of Comprehensive Plans and/or Zoning Regulations for Future Annexation Areas
- Zoning for Annexation in Areas Not “Prezoned”
Yes, a city can require a property owner sign a “no protest” or “pre-annexation” agreement in which the property owner agrees to future annexation as a condition of receiving utility services from the city. The State Supreme Court upheld the validity of such agreements in Yakima County (West Valley) Fire Protection District v. Yakima (1993).
Although there is no clear statutory authority that specifically allows cities and towns to annex territory located in another county, it appears a city or town may do so.
First, RCW 35A.14.020, relating to the election method of annexation in code cities, sets out a process for reviewing petitions where the territory in question is located in more than one county.
Second, in AGO 59-60 No. 37, the attorney general’s office concluded that a first class city “lying wholly within one county can annex contiguous territory in another county.” This opinion was based not upon the broad authority granted first class cities by statute, but upon the broad powers granted to all cities with respect to annexation. The opinion notes that crossing county boundary lines is not prohibited by any section of annexation law, and that the state legislature has specifically authorized the incorporation of any area lying in two or more counties (See, e.g., RCW 35.02.001, 35.02.015). The cities of Woodland, Milton, and Bothell, and the town of Coulee Dam include territory in two or more counties.
No, not under normal circumstances. There is no process established by state law for such a change. The primary state constitutional provision is article 11, section 3, which reads, in part:
No new counties shall be established which shall reduce any county to a population less than four thousand (4,000), nor shall a new county be formed containing a less population than two thousand (2,000). There shall be no territory stricken from any county unless a majority of the voters living in such territory shall petition therefore and then only under such other conditions as may be prescribed by a general law applicable to the whole state...
The state legislature has never enacted a “general law” providing a process for shifting a county boundary.
Additionally, the state legislature is prohibited from making a change to the county boundaries in such a situation by article 2, section 28 of the state constitution:
The legislature is prohibited from enacting any private or special laws in the following cases:
[. . .] 18. Changing county lines, locating or changing county seats, provided, this shall not be construed to apply to the creation of new counties.
Chapter 36.04 RCW establishes the boundaries of each of the counties. Chapter 36.08 RCW provides a detailed process for shifting county boundaries, but only in quite limited situations. For example, RCW 36.08.010 states as follows:
If a harbor, inlet, bay, or mouth of river is embraced within two adjoining counties, and an incorporated city is located upon the shore of such harbor, bay, inlet, or mouth of river and it is desired to embrace within the limits of one county, the full extent of the shore line of the harbor, port, or bay, and the waters thereof, together with a strip of the adjacent and contiguous upland territory not exceeding three miles in width, to be measured back from highwater mark, and six miles in length, and not being at a greater distance in any part of said strip from the courthouse in the county seat of the county to which the territory is proposed to be annexed, as such county seat and courthouse are now situated, than ten miles, a majority of the qualified electors living in such territory may petition to have the territory stricken from the county of which it shall then be a part, and added to and made a part of the county contiguous thereto.
The legislature would need to enact a general law providing a process for the residents of land in question to petition for a county boundary change, and then a process for making the change. See the detailed provisions in chapter 36.08 RCW as an example. It is not clear whether such a change would necessarily require an election.
Using the municipal purpose annexation method, a code city can annex non-contiguous land so long as the land is owned by the city and the land is located within its urban growth area (UGA) (RCW 35A.14.005). If the code city does not own the noncontiguous land and it is not within its UGA, it may not annex that land.
For second-class cities and towns, the property to be annexed need not be owned by the city but, if owned by others, the owners must consent to the annexation in writing (RCW 35.13.180). If the second-class cities and towns are planning under growth management, then the land must be located within its UGA (RCW 35.13.005). If they are not planning under growth management, then they can proceed if the annexation is for a municipal purpose.
Yes. An area proposed to be annexed to a city is deemed contiguous to the city even though separated by water, tidelands, or shorelands (shores of a lake or river, not subject to tidal flow). Upon annexation of such an area, the intervening water and/or tideland or shoreland is to become a part of the annexing city (RCW 35.13.010, RCW 35A.14.010).
May a city annex a very narrow strip of land leading to a larger tract of land? (This practice is known as a “shoestring” or “corridor” annexation, and the narrow strip of land is intended to make the larger tract at its end “contiguous” to the annexing city.)
This type of annexation would probably be invalidated if challenged. In Long v. City of Olympia (1967), the State Supreme Court recognized precedent in other states overturning shoestring annexations as not being properly contiguous to the annexing municipality. However, the court in Long upheld an annexation in which the annexed area was roughly shaped like an hour glass, the bottom of the glass abutted to the annexing city, and the top of the glass “substantially” abutted it. Further, among the objectives of boundary review boards (who review annexations where their jurisdiction is invoked) is preventing abnormally irregular boundaries and ensuring logical service areas are maintained (RCW 36.93.180).
In Snohomish County v. Hinds (1991), the court upheld the county boundary review board’s rejection of a proposed annexation described as a “flagpole” shape (consisting of a 1,450 foot boundary with the city and a three quarter mile area of highway corridor with commercial development potential excluding all residential area). The review board denied the annexation in part because the annexation didn’t preserve a logical service area and because the annexation created “abnormally irregular” boundaries. The review board found that “a preponderance of the evidence indicates that municipal services (fire, police, water, other) are adequately provided in the annexation area,” and concluded that the annexation might create “possible confusion in jurisdiction for fire and police response.”
The only statutory limitation is applicable to towns. Towns with a population of 1,500 or less and towns located in counties with a population of one million or more are limited to two square miles in total area. Towns of more than 1,500 population in counties with less than one million population are limited to three square miles in total area (RCW 35.21.010).
In addition, towns may not annex more than 20 acres of unplatted land belonging to any one person without the consent of the owner (RCW 35.21.010). (This limitation applies to state-owned lands as well as privately held lands. See AGO 1957 No. 107.)
Towns that change their classification to become code cities are no longer under these limitations.
Washington courts have upheld annexations that had minor errors in their annexation notices. In Tukwila v. King County (1970), the court upheld an annexation even though portions of the legal description were garbled as a result of a drafting or typographical errors, because all of the property owners within the proposed annexation knew of an attended the annexation hearing and because the property was treated as part of the city for the next four and a half years. In Long v. City of Olympia (1967), a slight deviation from statutory election notice timetables was permitted where much publicity on the annexation occurred through radio and news accounts and through the distribution of printed literature.
However, a significant error in an annexation notice, such as a major flaw in a legal description, could cause a court to invalidate an annexation. See State ex. Rel Great Northern Railway v. Herschberge (1921).
Yes, the annexation area can be expanded when the initiating parties meet with the city council (after the filing of the Notice of Intent, but before the circulation of the petition):
The legislative body shall set a date, not later than sixty days after the filing of the request, for a meeting with the initiating parties to determine whether the code city will accept, reject, or geographically modify the proposed annexation [….] Approval by the legislative body shall be a condition precedent to circulation of the petition. There shall be no appeal from the decision of the legislative body […]
The city council could, at the time of its meeting with the initiating parties, “geographically modify” (i.e., expand) the annexation area pursuant to the language in RCW 35A.14.120 and 35.13.410. However, once the annexation area is approved by the city council, the annexation petition should be based on the approved annexation area.
No. Annexations are legislative actions and all of the annexation methods require city council approval as a pre-requisite to moving forward with annexation.
We do not think a city can aggregate the signatures from non-contiguous properties for the purpose of annexing both. Annexation petitions are to be signed by owners of the property to be annexed. Thus, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a person in Area A to sign a petition to annex Area B – the person in area A likely has no interest in the annexation of property located in area B. A better approach is to circulate two separate petitions for the two noncontiguous parcels.
It can be. Owners of tax-exempt property may sign annexation petitions just as owners of taxable property may. (See Johnson v Spokane (1978). See also Parosa v Tacoma (1960), concluding that the Port of Tacoma had authority to petition the City of Tacoma for annexation of its property, since one of the attributes of land ownership is the right to petition for annexation to a city.)
Also, government-owned property can count, for purposes of the alternative direct petition method (RCW 35.13.420; RCW 35A.14.420), towards obtaining the signatures of owners of a majority of the acreage of the area proposed for annexation.
When a proposed annexation includes government-owned property, the county assessor will need to value the government-owned property, which would count toward the 100% assessed value of the area proposed for annexation. Although government-owned property is not annually valued, it can be valued when necessary.
State land can be annexed, but it is unclear whether all methods can be used. State land can be annexed, for example, via the election method initiated by resolution or the petition method where enough signatures are obtained from private property owners to meet the percentage requirement.
It is not clear whether state land can be annexed using the petition method requiring signatures on behalf of the state property. An attorney general opinion, AGO 1957 No. 107, casts doubt on the authority of state officials to consent to an annexation absent specific legislative authorization applicable to the state agency involved. However, since one of the attributes of real property ownership is the right to petition for annexation to a city (Johnson v Spokane (1978); Parosa v Tacoma (1960)), it is arguable that a state agency with authority to own land would have similar authority to petition for annexation if it desired to do so.
All owners of a single property? No; when a parcel of property is owned by multiple owners, the signature of an owner designated by the multiple owners is sufficient (RCW 35.21.005(9)(g); RCW 35A.01.040(9)(g)).
Property sold prior to filing of a petition? Since the validity of signatures and the sufficiency of a petition is determined after the petition is filed, a signature by a person that, at the time of petition filing, no longer owns the property for which he or she signed would not be a valid signature (see January 11, 1993 letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General James K. Pharris to Senator Dean Sutherland).
Yes, up to a certain point in time. RCW 35.21.005(4) and RCW 35A.01.040(4) require that a certificate be filed by the county officer who will determine the sufficiency of the petition. This certificate is to contain the date on which the determination of the sufficiency of the petition is begun. This is known as the “terminal date.” A signature may be withdrawn by a written request that is filed prior to the terminal date. The written request must describe the petition sufficiently, so identification of the person and petition is certain. The name of the person seeking to withdraw is to be signed exactly as is signed in the petition.
It depends on the annexation method used. Since petition method annexations do not involve ballot propositions, the prohibition in RCW 42.17A.555 against the use of city facilities and staff in support of a ballot proposition does not apply. However, the election method of annexation does involve a ballot proposition, so cities must not publish promotional material urging a favorable vote in an annexation election; only factual information may be presented to the voting public. The annexation statutes specifically authorize a city or town to “provide factual public information on the effects of a pending annexation” (RCW 35.13.350, 35.21.890, 35A.14.550, and WAC 390-05-271, 390-05-273).
For first and second class cities and towns, RCW 35.13.020 provides that a petition for annexation must be signed by the residents in the area equal in number to 20% of the votes cast “at the last election.” Unlike some of the other annexation statutes, RCW 35.13.020 does not refer to the “last state general election” or the “last preceding general election;” it merely refers to the “last election.” “Election” is defined in RCW 29A.04.043 to mean “a general election except where the context indicates that a special election is included.” Thus, the “last election” refers to the last general election (which is held in November).
The requirements for code cities are different. For code cities, RCW 35A.14.020 requires the petition be signed by residents in the area equal to ten percent of the votes cast at the “last state general election.”
Yes, a city has the authority to annex an unincorporated island parcel without the consent of the property owner. However, the annexation ordinance is subject to referendum, so the property owner can block the annexation pursuant to a referendum (RCW 35A.14.295 - .299; RCW 35.13.182-.1822).
A city should use the land annexed consistent with its identified municipal purpose for annexation. However, unforeseen changes of circumstances would probably be recognized as sufficient reason to support a change in use if the city’s original intention becomes impossible to accomplish. On the other hand, a city should not annex an area with a preconceived intention to use it for a purpose not contemplated by the statute; that action would be subject to challenge.
The power to annex is a discretionary power of the city council, and not subject to general initiative and referendum. However, the following annexation methods do provide for a referendum process:
- Unincorporated Islands Method
- Unincorporated Island-Interlocal Agreement Method
- Interlocal Agreement Method for Annexation of Areas Served by Fire Districts
If the annexed land includes undeveloped platted lots that don’t conform to the city’s zoning provisions, may the city require that those lots be replatted to meet the annexing city’s dimensional standards?
The answer depends on various factors, including when the lots were platted:
- Land platted within 5, 7 or 10 years prior to annexation: If the formerly unincorporated land had been recently platted, the lots could be developed according to the final plat approval for the time period set forth in RCW 58.17.170 (five, seven, or ten years, depending on the circumstances of approval).
- Land platted over 5, 7, or 10 years from annexation but after adoption of subdivision statute in 1969: Even if the land had been platted prior to that, but after the adoption of the subdivision statute (Chapter 58.17 RCW) in 1969, the lots would likely be able to be developed as platted, but would now be subject to the city’s developments regulations, such as setbacks, design standards, etc.
- Land platted prior to adoption of subdivision statute in 1969: If the land was platted before the adoption of the subdivision statute, Chapter 58.17 RCW, in 1969 and is in single ownership, then AGLO 1974 No. 7 and AGO 1996 No. 5 support the conclusion that a city may require those lots to be replatted. This is true independent of annexation.
Developed lots would be treated as legal nonconforming development if inconsistent with the city’s zoning code and development regulations. See our Nonconforming Uses, Structures, and Lots page for more details.
Assumption and Annexation of County ROW and Easements
Yes, MRSC has consistently opined that county roads are annexed if they are within the annexation area. The Supreme Court held in Evergreen Trailways, Inc. v. the City of Renton (1951) that, when a county road is part of an area annexed by a city, the road becomes a city street and the city assumes full responsibility for it. This is supported by McQuillin Law of Municipal Corporations, which states:
All public highways in annexed territory become, without any action on the part of the municipal authorities, streets of the municipality, and it assumes the same duties and liabilities as to them as rests upon it in reference to the public ways of its original territory.
See “Control over streets and highways,” 2A McQuillin Mun. Corp. § 7:60 (3d ed.)
Finally, RCW 46.04.120, defines city street to be “every public highway, or part thereof located within the limits of cities and towns, except alleys.” And, while dealing with initial incorporation, RCW 35.02.180 provides that:
[t]he ownership of all county roads located within the boundaries of a newly incorporated city or town shall revert to the city or town and become streets as of the official date of incorporation.
It depends on the nature of the easement. Rights-of-way, which are easements, do transfer to the city upon annexation. See Evergreen Trailways, Inc. v. the City of Renton (1951). On the other hand, annexation will not result in extinguishment of all county easements. For example, if the county provides sewer service in the area annexed and will continue to do so after annexation, then any sewer easements possessed by the county would continue as county-owned easements after annexation.
If a BRB makes changes to the annexation boundaries, the city should amend its annexation ordinance to reflect the adjusted boundaries. The certificate filed with the Office of Financial Management (OFM) must attach a copy of the city annexation ordinance containing the legal description and map showing specifically the boundaries of the annexation area. See RCW 35A.14.700(1) and RCW 35.13.260. If the city passed an ordinance reflecting the original annexation boundaries and the BRB amended those boundaries, then the ordinance must be amended to reflect the new boundaries in order to file an accurate certificate with OFM.
The wording in both RCW 36.93.090, and 36.93.100 refers to the county within which the annexation/boundary change/action is taking place – if the land proposed for annexation is in an adjoining county, then the boundary review board of the adjoining county would have jurisdiction.