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Annexation FAQs

This page provides answers to some 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.

Planning for Annexation

Do cities have authority to pre-zone areas not yet annexed but identified as potential annexation areas?

Yes, it is both possible and recommended for a city to “pre-designate” or “pre-zone” future annexation areas. 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:

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Can a city require property owners in future annexation areas to sign “no protest agreements” or “pre-annexation agreements” as a condition of extending city utilities?

Yes, a city can require that property owners sign “no protest” or “pre-annexation” agreements in which they agree to future annexation as a condition of receiving city utility services. The State Supreme Court upheld the validity of such agreements in Yakima County (West Valley) Fire Protection District v. Yakima (1993).

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Is a city annexation subject to SEPA review?

No, annexations are not subject to State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) review (RCW 43.21C.222). However, planning and zoning decisions made in conjunction with an annexation are subject to SEPA review.

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Annexation Boundaries (What Can Be Annexed)

Can a city annex land outside of its urban growth area?

No, a city that has designated urban growth areas (UGAs) under RCW 36.70A.110 cannot annex land located outside of its UGAs (RCW 35.13.005 and 35A.14.005). The statutes make no exception for municipal purpose annexations (even though there may be valid policy reasons to exclude such annexations from this prohibition).

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Can a city annex property located in another county?

Although there is no clear statutory authority that specifically allows a city or town to annex territory in another county, it appears the 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 on the broad authority granted to first class cities by statute, but on 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 and 35.02.015). The cities of Woodland, Milton, and Bothell and the town of Coulee Dam include territory in two or more counties.

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Can one county annex territory from an adjacent county?

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, while 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.

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May a city or town annex noncontiguous land?

No, unless the land is to be used for a municipal purpose. Using the municipal purpose annexation method, a code city can annex non-contiguous land so long as the land is owned by the city (RCW 35A.14.300). If the code city plans under the Growth Management Act (GMA), Chapter 36.70A RCW, the land must also be located within its urban growth area (UGA) (RCW 35A.14.005).

For second-class cities and towns, the property to be annexed for a municipal purpose need not be owned by the city, but the other owners must consent to the annexation in writing (RCW 35.13.180). If the second-class city or town is planning under the GMA, then the land must also be located within its UGA (RCW 35.13.005).

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May a city annex property located across a body of water?

Yes. An area proposed to be annexed to a city is deemed contiguous to the city even if 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 and 35A.14.010).

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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 hourglass, the bottom of the glass abutted to the annexing city, and the top of the glass “substantially” abutted it. Further, one of 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.”

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Is there a limit on the amount of territory a city or town may annex?

The only statutory limitation is applicable to towns. Towns with populations of 1,500 or fewer and towns located in counties with populations of one million or more are limited to two square miles in total area. Towns of more than 1,500 population in counties with fewer than one million residents 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 57-58 No. 106.)

Towns that change their classification to become code cities under Title 35A RCW are no longer under these limitations.

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Notification, Publication, Recording

Does an error in an annexation notice invalidate a proceeding?

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 drafting or typographical errors because all the property owners within the proposed annexation knew of and 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 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).

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Can the city expand the annexation area identified in its original Notice of Intent to Annex if additional property owners subsequently ask to participate in annexation?

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. Per RCW 35A.14.120 (for code cities, with emphasis added): 

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 […]

See RCW 35.13.410 for first and second class cities and towns. 

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.

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Legislative Body Approval

Can an annexation election be forced by annexation area landowners if a majority of councilmembers of the annexing city opposed an annexation?

No. Annexations are legislative actions, and every annexation method requires city council approval as a pre-requisite to moving forward with annexation.

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Sixty Percent Petition Annexation Method

May a city annex two parcels that are noncontiguous to each other under one petition?

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 properties 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.

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Is public property included for the purposes of meeting the 60% requirement?

It can be. Owners of tax-exempt property may sign annexation petitions just as owners of taxable property may. (See Johnson v. Spokane (1978). Parosa v. Tacoma (1960) also concluded 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 and 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.

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May state-owned land be annexed?

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 57-58 No. 106, 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) and 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.  

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Who is required to sign an annexation petition?

Both spouses? No; both spouses are not required to sign. The signature of a record owner is sufficient without the signature of their spouse (RCW 35.21.005(9)(a) and 35A.01.040(9)(a)).

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) and 35A.01.040(9)(g)).

Property sold prior to filing 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 they signed would not be a valid signature (see January 11, 1993 letter from Senior Assistant Attorney Gen­eral James K. Pharris to Senator Dean Sutherland).

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May property owners withdraw their names from a petition they signed?

Yes, up to a certain time. RCW 35.21.005(4) and 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.

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May a city use its facilities and staff to solicit signatures for a 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, and 35A.14.550, as well as WACs 390-05-271 and 390-05-273).  

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May neighboring landowners located outside of both the annexing city and the proposed annexation area participate in public hearings on annexation?

Yes. The State Supreme Court concluded in Tukwila v. King County (1970), that neigh­boring landowners should be notified of annexations in the general vicinity of their properties and be given a chance to appear and be heard.

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May a city recover the expenses it incurs in handling annexation requests using the petition method?

Yes, cities have the authority to charge fees for handling and processing annexation petitions (RCW 82.02.020).

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Other Annexation Methods

What election is used as the basis for determining how many signatures are necessary on petitions to initiate annexations by the election method for cities and towns?

For first and second class cities and towns, RCW 35.13.020 provides that petitions for annexation must be signed by residents in the area equal in number to 20% of the votes cast “at the last election.” Unlike some 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 10% of the votes cast at the “last state general election.”

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Does a city have the authority to annex an unincorporated island consisting of one parcel without the consent of the property owner?

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 and 35.13.182-.1822).

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Must a city actually use the land annexed for a municipal purpose?

A city should use the land 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.

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Referendum Process in Annexation Methods

Which annexation methods require a referendum process?

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:

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Who must sign the referendum petition for an unincorporated island annexation?

For the referendum petition to proceed, the petition must be signed by at least 10% of qualified electors in the proposed unincorporated island annexation area who cast votes in the last general state election (RCW 35A.14.299 and 35.13.1821).

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Consequences of Annexation

When will the ordinances of the annexing city be effective in the annexed area?

The laws of the annexing city apply to the annexed area as of the effective date of the annexation (Hoops v. Burlington Northern, Inc. (1974)).

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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 five, seven, 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 more than five, seven, or 10 years before 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.

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Assumption and Annexation of County ROW and Easements

Are county roads automatically annexed if the surrounding properties are annexed?

Yes, MRSC has consistently held the opinion 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.

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Does a city automatically assume a county easement upon annexation?

It depends on the nature of the easement. Rights-of-way, which are easements, 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.

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What is the process for a city to annex a county right-of-way (ROW) bordering the city limits?

For a county right-of-way located on city boundaries, the city and county can agree to revise the corporate boundaries to include the right-of-way. See RCW 35A.21.210 and 35.21.790.

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Boundary Review Boards

If the Boundary Review Board (BRB) made changes to proposed annexation boundaries, does city need to take additional action?

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 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.

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If a city is annexing territory within an adjacent county, which county's boundary review board would review the proposed annexation?

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.

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Last Modified: February 23, 2024