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Rural Land Use Regulation/Development

This page provides information on rural land use and development for local governments in Washington State, particularly those areas that are not designated for long-term resource uses such as agricultural and timber production or mineral extraction.

New legislation: Effective June 9, 2022:

  • SB 5275 allows more options for development and redevelopment inside the boundaries of Limited Areas of More Intense Rural Development (LAMIRDs).
  • SB 5042 provides for effective dates of actions that expand an urban growth area; removes the designation of agricultural, forest, or mineral resource lands; creates or expands a LAMIRD; or creates or expands a master-planned resort.

We will provide more information on our website soon.


Webster's New World Dictionary defines "rural" as "of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture, which may represent a common understanding of the term "rural."

However, Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA) creates a separate category for rural areas, which are outside of designated urban areas and which are not in long-term resource use. By creating a separate category, the GMA focuses attention on how these non-resource lands, may be developed, and on their relationship to resource lands.

1997 amendments to the GMA sought to give further definition to the concept of "rural" and added definitions for "rural character," "rural development," and "rural governmental services." The 2005 amendments also provided further detail about what should be included in rural elements of a comprehensive plan, including guidelines for limited areas of more intensive rural development, and other land use options for rural economic development.

These amendments provide flexibility for more varied economic uses in rural areas, while maintaining rural character and scale. Some local jurisdictions are tailoring regulatory and/or non-regulatory tools to address rural and resource areas, where urban solutions typically have not worked. At times, inflexible regulations have made resource operations more difficult, despite goals for protecting farmlands, resource areas, and open space. Urban, suburban or rural settings will likely require different types of approaches to be effective and gain acceptance. Greater flexibility regarding uses and performance standards, and strategic incentives, may better meet the needs of rural areas and resource-related operations.

Included on this page are several guidebooks prepared for the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development for the purpose of helping counties plan for and control development while preserving rural character on the non-resource rural lands. The two guides are Defining Rural Character and Planning for Rural Lands A Rural Element Guide, and the Keeping the Rural Vision: Protecting Rural Character and Planning for Development . The article Avoiding Sprawl in Rural Areas, summarizes and comments on Growth Management Hearing Boards cases that have struggled with interpreting Washington laws related to rural development issues. A number of other articles, statutes, growth management hearing board cases, and examples of plan policies and ordinances related to rural issues are also presented on this page.

Statutes, Administrative Rules, and Court Decisions

In addition to statutes and case law cited below, a number of growth management hearings board (GMHB) decisions address relevant rural issues, and provide helpful guidance. The GMHB Digests containing keyword indexes are helpful in finding cases of interest. For instance, various digests provide a brief description of findings under topic headings such as "rural centers," rural character", rural densities," "limited areas of more intensive rural development," "major industrial development," and "master planned resorts." Note that decisions prior to June 30, 2010 are separated into separate digests for the Eastern Board, Western Board, and the Central Puget Sound Board. After that time, the boards were combined and decisions from all parts of the state are now included in the same volumes.


Administrative Regulations

Selected Court Decisions

  • Kittitas County v. Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, 172 Wn.2d 144 (2011)

    The court reaffirmed that questions of appropriate rural densities are fact specific to local communities and that boards may not rely on bright line rules regarding density. However, a county must develop a written record explaining its consideration of local circumstances in planning its rural element. While deference to local government determinations regarding what measures will best protect rural character, plans must actually include such measures. The court found that there was substantial evidence in the record that nothing in the plan directly and prospectively ensures a variety of rural densities.

  • Thurston County v. Cooper Point Association, 148 Wn.2d 1 (2002)

    The extension of a sewer line from an urban treatment plant to a rural area constitutes urban growth subject to statutory restrictions imposed by the Growth Management Act. The extension violates the provisions of RCW 36.70A.110(4) because the county cannot show that the proposed extension is necessary to protect basic public health, safety and environment.

  • Thurston County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, 164 Wn.2d 329 (2008)

    Growth management hearings boards do not have the authority to set "bright line" standards in relation to rural and urban residential densities. The GMA gives local authorities general guidelines for setting rural densities. RCW 36.70A.070 (5) states that "Because circumstances vary from county to county, in establishing patterns of rural densities and uses, a county may consider local circumstances but shall develop a written record explaining how the rural element harmonizes the planning goals in RCW 36.70A.020 and meets the requirements of this chapter."

General Background

  • Avoiding Sprawl in Rural Areas, Amy Kosterlitz (1997) - Although this article predates SSB 6037 and recent court and hearings board cases, it is still one of the best analyses of GMA legal requirements for rural areas.
  • Defining Rural Character and Planning for Rural Areas - A Rural Element Guidebook, Washington State Department of Community Trade and Economic Development (CTED is now the Washington State Department of Commerce) (1994) - The state's step-by-step guide to preparing a rural element under GMA is still highly relevant.
  • Keeping the Rural Vision: Protecting Rural Character and Planning for Rural Development, Department of Community Trade and Economic Development (1999) - This helpful guide is a supplement to the state's 1994 guide following the ESHB 6094 and other amendments to GMA rural requirements.
  • Policy Options for a Changing Rural America, Leslie A. Whitener, Tim Parker, Amber Waves, USDA Economic Research Service (2007) - Overview of the changing demographics and economy of rural America and policy options to address these changes.
  • Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities, International City/County Management Association (ICMA) (2010) - The report provides a set of tools that leaders from rural communities and small towns can use to help attract and direct future growth while ensuring that it meet their economic, environmental, and public health goals.
  • Rural America At A Glance, USDA Economic Research Service (2017) - Annual briefs highlight the most recent social and economic conditions in rural areas for use in developing policies and programs to assist rural areas.
  • Rural and Resource Area Densities, excerpted from "Art and Science of Designating Urban Growth Areas: Some Suggestions for Criteria and Densities," Community Trade and Economic Development (CTED) - Still a very helpful discussion of considerations in establishing rural densities.
  • What is Rural? US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Rural Information Center - Links to rural definitions used by Census and various federal agencies, and to resources on rural maps and data, rural values, rural character and other rural topics.
  • What to Do About Rural Sprawl?, by Tom Daniels, paper presented at American Planning Association Conference, Seattle (1999) - Although older, this is a particularly insightful look at the issue of rural sprawl and the potential tools tp address sprawl in rural areas.

Flexibility for Varied Economic Uses

Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRD)

The 1997 and 2005 amendments to RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d) of the Growth Management Act (GMA) provided further direction for the rural element of a comprehensive plan, including guidelines for limited areas of more intensive development. These amendments provide flexibility for more varied economic uses in rural areas, while maintaining rural character and scale.

Most Washington counties have examples of existing areas of more intensive development such as unincorporated hamlets, villages, crossroads, shoreline development or other areas built or vested prior to the adoption of GMA comprehensive plans. Certainly, every county has some some isolated cottage industries or small-scale businesses that do not specifically serve resource uses and that predate current plans.

These developments may or may not be served by sewer, water, fire, and other public services. The uncontrolled expansion of such areas of intensive, non-rural uses tends to promote sprawl and threaten the rural character that GMA seeks to protect. Counties found these existing developments difficult to reconcile with newly adopted goals and requirements for rural areas. At the same time, many of the resource industries that have traditionally provided jobs and income to rural residents have cut back operations or even disappeared. Many rural residents expressed a need for more employment opportunities and convenient services in rural areas.

The 1997 amendments recognized the opportunity that existing developed areas might offer to provide additional jobs, services and a varied housing choices for rural residents while limiting impacts. The amendments allowed limited areas of more intensive rural development ((LAMIRDs) as exceptions to the rural plan element requirements, while retaining protections for rural character and the operation of resource uses. Most significantly, the amendments required that counties establish logical outer boundaries, based on the boundaries of existing development, to contain more intense development.

RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d) describes three different types of LAMIRDs. The first type is rural development consisting of the infill, development, or redevelopment of existing commercial, industrial, residential or mixed use areas, as provided in RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(i). This type of LAMIRD may range in character from shoreline development to villages, hamlets, rural activity centers or crossroad developments, provided the development or redevelopment occurs within the logical outer boundaries of the LAMIRD, as defined by the local jurisdiction. In addition, the intensification of development on lots containing, or new development of, small-scale recreational or tourist uses that rely on a rural location and setting are generally allowed in the rural area per RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(ii). Finally, the intensification of development on lots containing isolated nonresidential uses, or new development of isolated cottage industries and isolated small-scale businesses may be generally allowed in the rural area under RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(iii). For the later two LAMIRD types, intensification, or expansion, of these businesses will be limited to the existing lot.

The following are examples of LAMIRD provisions adopted by Washington counties. Most of the examples include provisions for infill, development and redevelopment of existing rural developed centers or areas as allowed under RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(i). The two sections that follow this section illustrate two other specific types of LAMIRDs.

  • Clark County Unified Development Code Sec. 40.210.030 - Rural Center Residential Districts (RC-2.5, RC-1)
  • Kitsap County Manchester Community (Subarea) Plan, updated 2007 - LAMIRD
  • San Juan County Comprehensive Plan, Element 2, Land Use Element, updated through 04/2010 - Scroll to Policy 2.3.B - Activity Centers (including Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development). See also Policy 2.3.C(10)(d) & (e) - Rural Industrial and Rural Commercial
  • San Juan County Code Sec. 18.30.070 - Rural, resource, and special districts - Special provisions
  • San Juan County Code Sec. 18.30.040 - Land use table - Rural, resource, and special land use districts; Sec. 18.30.030, Land use table 3.1 - Activity center land use districts, and Sec. 18.30.200 - Interim controls in village and hamlet activity centers; and Sec. 18.30.230 - Residential development standards in island centers, rural industrial and rural commercial districts
  • Spokane County Comprehensive Plan, 2012 Ch. 3 - Rural Land Use - See especially "Residential Limited Development Areas" Policy RL 1.3 on p. RL-5, and "Rural Activity Centers" Policies R-2.1 - RL 2.4 on p. RL-10)
  • Thurston County Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRDs)
  • Yakima County Horizon 2040 Plan Section 5.9 - Rural Lands Sub-Element (2017)
  • Yakima County Code Sec. 19.11.040 - Rural Settlement Zoning District

Intensification of Development on Lots Containing Nonresidential Uses

This section includes examples of the intensification of development on lots containing isolated nonresidential uses, or new development of isolated cottage industries and isolated small-scale businesses as allowed under RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(iii)

  • Clark County Code Sec. 40.260.100 - Home Business, including Table 40.260.100-1 "Rural Major Home Business Requirements
  • Jefferson County Code Sec. 18.20.170 - Cottage Industry
  • Spokane County Comprehensive Plan 2012 Ch. 3 - Rural Land Use - See especially "Home Professions and Home Industries" RL 5.8 & 5.9 on p. RL-15)

Small Scale Recreation and Tourist Use LAMIRDs

Many of Washington's rural areas offer magnificent scenic settings and natural amenities with potential to attract tourists and recreational enthusiasts. Small-scale recreational or tourist uses (SSRTs) provide the opportunity for additional sources of rural jobs and income. When carefully planned and sited, some of these recreation-related uses can be developed without jeopardizing neighboring resource uses or sacrificing rural character. Small-scale recreational or tourist uses rely on a rural location and setting. They generally involve a more limited investment and a smaller scale of development than master planned resorts. SSRTs occupy an individual parcel and focus on offering one or several activities rather than broad range of activities or services. They may be a Ma & Pa type operation, but they still must provide access to a high-quality recreational opportunity to be successful. They can include commercial but not permanent residential uses. Washington has numerous examples of small-scale uses such as bed and breakfast lodging, campgrounds, fishing or river rafting guide services, and equipment rental (such as boats, cross-country skis or sail boards) in areas bordering park, forest, or recreational areas. SSRTs are different from master planned resorts, which are larger scale developments that are more fully discussed in a following section. See RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(ii).

  • Island County Code Sec. 17.03.180(T) - Small-scale recreation and tourist uses
  • Jefferson County Code Sec. 18.15.572 - Small-scale recreation and tourist (SRT) overlay district, Sec. 18.20.350 - Small-scale recreation and tourist uses, and Sec. 18.20.290 - Recreation developments
  • Skagit County Code Sec. 14.16.130 - Small Scale Recreation and Tourism (SRT)
  • San Juan County Unified Development Code Sec. 18.40.330 - Recreation Developments

Rural Area Major Industrial Developments and Industrial Land Banks

Major Industrial Developments Outside of Urban Growth Areas

Counties may establish a process for approval of a major industrial development outside of the UGA for a specific business. A "major industrial development" is defined as a "master planned location for a specific manufacturing, industrial, or commercial business" (RCW 36.70A.365). The process for approval must be established in consultation with cities. Major industrial developments must require a parcel of land so large that no suitable parcels are available within the UGA or must be a natural resource-based industry that requires a location near the resource lands on which it is dependent. Upon approval, the development will be designated as a UGA. A major industrial development must meet the statutory criteria specified in RCW 36.70A.365.

Industrial Land Banks for Counties That Meet Certain Conditions

In addition to major industrial developments, the GMA allows certain counties to designate industrial land banks outside of UGAs (RCW 36.70A.367). In 1996, the Legislature authorized Clark County to designate a bank of no more than two master planned locations for major industrial activity outside UGAs. This authority was later extended to Whatcom County in 1997, to Lewis, Grant, and Clallam counties in 1998, to Benton, Columbia, Mason, Jefferson, Franklin, Garfield, and Walla Walla counties in 2002, and to Jefferson and Clallam counties in 2003 (Clallam, Jefferson, and Mason counties no longer met the eligibility criteria established in 1998, until the criteria was revised in 2003 to make Clallam and Jefferson counties eligible). Note that a county's eligibility based statute criteria may vary over time, especially if population size or unemployment rates change, making a county ineligible under the criteria specified in RCW 36.70A.367(5).

Counties must designate locations suited to major industrial development in an adopted county comprehensive plan, and then adopt development regulations for the approval of specific major industrial developments through a master plan process. The development regulations must ensure that the criteria specified in RCW 36.70A.367(3) are met.

Counties choosing to identify land banks must take action to designate them and adopt regulations on or before the deadline for completion of the county's next periodic comprehensive plan and development regulations review that occurs before December 31, 2014. The authority of a county to designate a land bank area in its comprehensive plan expires if not acted upon within these time limitations. In addition, RCW 36.70A.368, enacted in 2007, allows counties meeting certain critieria to designate an industrial land bank on reclaimed surface coal mine sites (See the Lewis County TransAlta example.)

  • Grant County Code Sec. 23.04.660 - Master planned industrial development (MPI), Sec. 23.12.240 - Master planned industrial development standards, and Sec. 23.08.230 - Industrial uses —Standards for site development
  • Jefferson County Code Ch. 18.15, Art. VIII - Major Industrial Development, Sec. 18.15.600 - 18.15.635
  • Lewis County Code Ch. 17.20A - Industrial Land Bank Urban Growth Area, Ch. 17.21 - Float Glass Manufacturing Facility, and Ch. 17.20B - Master Planned Major Industrial Reclaimed Surface Coal Mine Urban Growth Area
  • Major Industrial Developments Outside of Urban Growth Areas (p.40), and Industrial Land Banks for Counties That Meet Certain Conditions (p.41), from Keeping the Rural Vision: Protecting Rural Character and Planning for Rural Development, CTED Currently the Deparment of Commerce, 1999 - Find it under the section on "Land Use Options for Rural Economic Development" Parts 6 and 7
  • Spokane County Comprehensive Plan Ch. 3 - Rural Land Use - See Policy RL 5.1 "Industrial and Commercial Lands" "Major Industrial Development" p. RL 12-13
  • Whatcom County Code Ch. 20.74 - Cherry Point Industrial (CP) District

Master Planned Resorts

According to the GMA definition, master planned resorts (MPRs) are "self-contained and fully integrated planned unit development(s), in a setting of significant natural amenities, with primary focus on destination resort facilities consisting of short-term visitor accommodations associated with a range of developed on-site indoor or outdoor recreation facilities (RCW 36.70A.360(1))." In other words, MPR's are more than just overnight lodging for visitors or a single recreation use. They are carefully planned and integrated developments, centered on special recreational opportunities and natural settings. They provide a package of facilities, services and amenities that largely meet the daily needs of visitors. Visitors are drawn for extended stays because of the high quality and varied recreational opportunity and the area's natural splendor. In several other states, they are called destination resorts to emphasize their special attractions and ability to draw visitors from distant places.

Careful planning and siting of resort facilities coupled with design excellence are essential ingredients to the success of an MPR. Successful resorts must balance development of an attractive package of amenities with preservation of the features and natural settings that are a major key to attracting visitors. In addition, RCW 36.70A.362 may be applied to existing resorts.


Other States

  • Deschutes County, OR Code Ch. 18.113 - Destination Resorts Zone
  • Jackson, WY Land Development Regulations Art. II, Div. 2500 - Planned Resort District

Other Strategies to Expand Rural Economic Uses

As noted above, the number of jobs and associated income in the natural resource industries that traditionally anchor rural economies has declined in recent years. This decline, in turn has precipitated a decline in the rural commercial service centers that support farm, forest, and mineral extraction operations. As a result, many rural residents that wish to stay in their communities are seeking other ways of making a living.

As described above, amendments to the Growth Management Act have opened new opportunities for small-scale commercial, industrial and recreation-oriented uses within LAMIRDs, and for master planned developments, major industrial development, and industrial land banks outside of urban growth areas. The challenge for Washington counties will be to facilitate new economic uses that are viable in low-density, more remote rural locations that lack an urban level of services and facilities. At the same time, any such new development should be scaled, designed and sited in a manner compatible with resource and critical areas protection goals and with rural character.

The following reports analyze the changing economic conditions, needs, and opportunities in rural areas. The King County reports, in particular, examine the market, infrastructure, and regulatory factors that affect the rural economy. The report describe a program to support and advance existing and new resource-related operations, including small-scale farming catering to new market demands, farmer-chef connections, and grass fed beef and poultry processing facilities. It outlines programs to increase other types of viable economic uses in rural areas, including home-based businesses, animal specialty services, and recreation and tourism uses.

  • King County 2008 Annual Report, and Updated Mission and Strategies, King County Rural Economic Strategies, revised 2009 - See description in paragraph above.
  • National 2016 Rural Development Progress Report, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development - Describes economic development progress of USDA programs under the USDA Strikeforce Initiative, microloans to small businesses, and investment in infrastructure and renewable energy opportunities that facilitate employment.
  • Small Towns, Big Ideas: Case Studies in Small Town Economic Community Development, North Carolina University of North Carolina School of Government at Chapell Hill, and North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, 12/2008 - Identifies and documents fifty small towns that were implementing successful or innovative approaches to community economic development. Includes a full report and a searchable database of case studies about planning and implementing economic development strategies in small towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 residents.

Planning and Design Tailored to Rural Areas

  • Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes, by Kevin Nelson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 02/2012 - This useful guidebook offers proven tools and strategies to help rural communities (especially small towns) to both maintain rural character and strengthen economic potential. It recognizes that rural communities need to identify strategies that they are able to implement with their limited resources
  • Issue Paper on Rural Areas, Puget Sound Regional Planning Council, 08/25/2005 - Helpful discussion of planning issues related to rural character, exception areas such as LAMIRDs, rural services, special purpose district siting, and rural economic development

Rural Subdivision Regulation

Washington Rural Subdivision Codes

  • Clallam County Code Title 29 - Subdivisions
  • Douglas County Code Title 17 - Subdivisions
  • Grant County Code Ch. 22.04 - Land Division
  • Jefferson County Code Ch. 18.35 - Land Divisions; and Ch. 18.30 - Development Standards
  • Okanogan County Code Title 16 - Subdivisions
  • San Juan County Code Ch. 18.70 - Land Divisions, and Ch. 18.60 - Development Standards - Includes transfer of development rights, rural cluster development, extension of services into rural areas, affordable housing bonus density
  • Spokane County Code Title 12 - Subdivisions
  • Whatcom County Code Title 21 - Land Division Regulations

Rural Subdivision Model Codes or Codes from other States

  • Larimer County, CO Code Ch. 5 - Land Division has separate rural land use procedure. See also Ch. 9 - Land Dedication, and Ch. 8 - Standards for all Development and Rural Land Use Process.

Rural Subdivision Flexibility Codes

  • Clark County Code Sec. 40.540.030(H) - Waiver of Survey Requirement
  • Kitsap County Code Sec. 16.04.160 - Development of illegally divided land, provides innocent purchaser provision
  • Okanogan County Code Ch. 16.34 - Deviations from Design Standards - Applicants may propose a deviation from certain standards, if criteria are met.
  • Walla Walla County Code Ch. 16.95 - Large Lot Subdivisions - Simplified procedure

Rural Cluster Subdivisions


  • Crowder, et al v. Spokane County, GMHB Case 10-1-0008, Final Decision and Order, at 8 (Aug. 24, 2010)

    [I]f a county chooses to allow rural cluster development, the county must do so in a manner that is consistent with rural character and provides appropriate rural densities that are not characterized by urban growth. The rural cluster can create smaller individual lots than would normally be allowed in a Rural Area, but only so long as there is a significant area of compensating open space that is “permanently” protected or protected "in perpetuity."

  • Mason County Code Ch. 16.23
  • Snohomish County Code Ch. 30.41C (last updated 2017) - Rural Cluster Subdivisions and Short Subdivisions
  • Spokane County Code Ch. 14.820 - Rural Cluster Development
  • Thurston County Code Ch. 20.30A - Planned Rural Residential Development (PRRD)
  • Walla Walla County Code Ch. 17.31 - Development Standards - Cluster Developments on Resource Lands
  • Yakima County Code Sec 19.34.035 - Cluster Developments

Other States

  • Boulder County, CO Land Use Code Article 6, Sec. 6-400 - Sec. 6-7000 - Nonurban PUD and Transferred Development

Rural Zoning and Land Use Planning Codes

Rural Zoning Flexibility

  • Douglas County Code Sec. 18.16.220 - Agricultural Support - Flexibility for accessory agricultural employee housing, transfer of land for agricultural use, and family support divisions.
  • Douglas County Code Ch. 14.98 - Definitions - See "accessory agricultural housing," "agriculture to agriculture transfers," and "family farm support divisions"
  • Skagit County Code Sec. 14.16.300 - Rural Intermediate - Includes long list of permitted uses, administrative special uses, and hearing examiner special uses.
  • Spokane County Code Sec. 14.618.220 - Rural Zones Matrix (Table 618-1) and Sec. 14.618.230 - Uses with Specific Standards - A variety of uses are permitted, some subject to conditions to assure compatibility with rural scale.

Rural Land Stewardship Programs

Some communities are providing the option to develop a rural stewardship plan, tailored to a specific property, as an alternative to strict adherence to development regulations. Modification of buffers, a streamlined permit process and/or other departures from standards may be permitted on properties that provide a plan of alternative actions that will protect environmental resources and avoid environmental harm.

Rural Ombudsman/Resource Teams/Permit Coordinator

King County has hired a rural ombudsman to conduct impartial investigations into rural citizens' complaints about zoning, land-use and other property-related complaints. The Rural Ombudsman may mediate disputes and make formal recommendations for procedural or legislative changes to address situations that trigger complaints. King County also appointed a rural permit coordinator who will focus on development permit application review and assistance in unincorporated rural areas.

  • King County Office of the Ombudsman - Includes a Senior Deputy Ombudsman for Rural Affairs who investigates complaints about rural land use issues and county operations.
  • Larimer County Rural Land Use Center - This center assists property owners who wish to develop their property while maintaining their land in agriculture or other open space. The process gives incentives to encourage alternative development that retains rural and agricultural lands.

Recommended Resources

Last Modified: August 18, 2023