Comprehensive Plan Update Process
This page provides guidance on the required periodic updates to city and county comprehensive plans and development regulations under the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA), including useful examples of various steps in the process as well as information on annual (optional) comprehensive plan amendments.
For a general overview of comprehensive plans, see our page Comprehensive Planning.
The Growth Management Act (GMA) provides two mechanisms for updating comprehensive plans and development regulations: (1) a "periodic updates" process and (2) an annual amendments process.
"Periodic Updates" Process (Mandatory)
Cities and counties fully planning under RCW 36.70A.040 must complete a periodic update for their entire comprehensive plan and development regulations, including those related to critical areas and natural resource lands. Periodic updates are required to be done every eight years, with the next scheduled updates due between 2024, 2025, 2026, or 2027 dependent on county. However, this is set to change to every 10 years after the current cycle.
Counties and cities not fully planning under the GMA are required to review and, if necessary, amend their policies and development regulations regarding critical areas and natural resource lands only (see our page on Critical Areas).
Below are some examples:
- Poulsbo 2024 Comprehensive Plan Update – A webpage set up to notify residents of public participation opportunities and development of plan elements.
- Redmond 2050 Comprehensive Plan update – A thorough webpage example for organizing the comprehensive plan update process
- Snohomish County 2024 Comprehensive Plan Update – Background and local context for updating the plan along with an update schedule. Includes resources for public engagement.
Annual Amendments Process (Optional)
Optional amendments allow cities and counties, if desired, to adopt a package of changes to the comprehensive plan and development regulations no more than once per year.
Below are some examples of annual amendment worksheets:
- Edgewood Comprehensive Plan Amendment Checklist (2021) – Includes required documents and their components required for an Amendment application. The list also includes guidelines on rationale for proposals and evaluation.
- Oak Harbor 2021 Amendment Information and Application Form for Sponsored Private Amendments (2020) – Application includes checklists for minor and major land use amendments under the city’s comprehensive plan
Periodic Update Schedule (Mandatory)
Each Washington city and county must periodically review and, if needed, revise its comprehensive plan and development regulations every eight years to ensure that they comply with the GMA, as per the schedule provided in RCW 36.70A.130. In 2022, the eight-year comprehensive plan periodic update cycle was extended to a 10-year cycle after the upcoming cycle.
All cities and counties are expected to have their comprehensive plans and development regulations (including critical areas ordinances) updated by June 30 of their deadline year, with the exception of King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, which have a deadline of December 31, 2024 for the current cycle.
A jurisdiction may complete the periodic update process before its deadline, but this does not change the deadline for its next periodic update cycle established by law.
Due to COVID-19, the next periodic update timeframe has been reset to start in 2024, with the deadlines phased in over the following four-year period: 2024, 2025, 2026, or 2027. The Washington Department of Commerce’s Growth Management Act Periodic Update page contains more information on the current periodic update schedule for each county in Washington.
County reviews of designated urban growth areas (UGAs) must also be completed according to this schedule, and evaluation requirements for the buildable lands program must be completed by counties and cities one year before those deadlines.
If a jurisdiction needs additional time to complete the update, the Department of Commerce recommends the jurisdiction pass a resolution that indicates:
- The efforts that have been made toward updating the comp plan,
- The specific reasons why additional time is needed, and
- An expected date of completion.
Examples of Resolutions
- Mercer Island Resolution No. 1500 (2015) – City was unable to meet June 30 deadline because it also undertook a town center visioning process, and the extension is intended to allow these two processes to happen concurrently.
- Seattle Resolution No. 31597 (2015) – City was unable to meet June 30 deadline because an appeal of a determination of non-significance (DNS) by the city’s hearing examiner required a revised DNS and more time for public input and future appeals
Other Periodic Update Considerations
Countywide Planning Policies
While counties are not required to update their countywide planning policies per RCW 36.70A.130, it is important for counties to review existing planning policies to see if any changes are needed and, if so, to revise as necessary in collaboration with cities. This situation might occur if a county’s periodic update identifies issues that could only be addressed by amending the countywide planning policies. These might include incorporation of new buildable lands data, UGA revisions, or new policies for siting public facilities of a countywide nature, to name just a few examples.
For jurisdictions that are subject to RCW 36.70A.215, amendments to countywide planning policies must be considered if any new information or analysis that impacts the "Buildable Lands Program" is identified during such a review, per RCW 36.70A.215(2)(d).
Buildable Lands Program
Jurisdictions subject to RCW 36.70A.215, which includes Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom counties and their respective cities, must complete a review and evaluation of their “Buildable Lands Program” at least one year before the comprehensive plan update to provide data that will be used for the comprehensive plan update, per RCW 36.70A.215(2)(b).
Below are some program examples:
- King County Buildable Lands Report (2014)
- Mount Vernon Comprehensive Plan Appendix B: Buildable Lands & Land Capacity Analysis (2016) – Voluntary buildable lands analysis
- Pierce County Buildable Lands
- Whatcom County Review and Evaluation Program (Buildable Lands) (2021) – A buildable lands program currently under development with the comprehensive plan update
Periodic Update Process
Practice Tip: We highly recommend consulting the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Growth Management Act Periodic Update page and resources.
There are five overall tasks counties and cities must take during the periodic update process.
- Establish a work program (including a public participation plan) and schedule
- Review, and revise where needed, relevant plans and regulations
- Conduct a public engagement program throughout the periodic update process
- Submit notice to the state
- Take legislative action on proposed amendments
These steps are outlined in more detail below, along with relevant examples.
1. Work Program and Schedule
It may be helpful to establish a detailed process schedule prior to undertaking your update. These will be used to form a timeline for updating comprehensive plans, and will establish required tasks for completing the full update. In determining the scope of work for an update, it is recommended that local governments use the Department of Commerce's Updated Checklists as the foundation for a work program.
While not required, it is recommended that a work program be formally adopted by ordinance or resolution. This can help preclude challenges later on about whether the jurisdiction should have reviewed a particular comprehensive plan element or development regulation.
Examples of Work Programs
- Chelan Work Plan (2017) – Provides timeline and summary for tasks planned under each element update.
- Mason County Scope of Work (2015) – Includes brief summaries of each plan element, highlighting specific areas of change. Includes a table-style schedule of activities at the end.
- San Juan County Comprehensive Plan Scope of Work (2016) – Divides tasks by element and applicable state law.
- Thurston County Scope of Work (2017) – Provides a clear outline of timeline, tasks, and deliverables
- Tumwater GMA Update Work Program (2015) – Begins with a simple visual timeline of activities, followed by description of expected changes for each comp plan element, including identifying staff and consultant needs.
2. Review Relevant Plans
The Department of Commerce provides expanded checklists for comprehensive plan updates. These checklists are used to review existing elements of jurisdictions’ comprehensive plans and determine what revisions and updates are needed.
3. Public Participation Plans
RCW 36.70A.035 requires that each Washington city and county establish a public participation program and procedures for amendments, updates, and revisions of comprehensive plans and development regulations. This includes establishing procedures for notifying affected and interested individuals and creating a plan for public review and comment.
Since 2022, federally recognized tribes are authorized to voluntarily participate in a county or regional planning process under the GMA.
Examples of Public Participation Programs
- Clark County Resolution No. 2014-01-10 (2014) – Includes public participation within its work plan. In addition to standard outreach techniques, the plan calls for using “Innovative Public Involvement Technology” and lists a number of unique ideas.
- Colville Public Participation Program (2020) – Provides clear notification techniques, schedules, and materials used to inform each session. It also identifies staff responsible for workshop engagement.
- Ellensburg Public Participation Plan (2017) – Utilizes a variety of participation tools including events, interviews, focus groups, and online engagement
- Seattle Public Participation Plan (2015) – Includes standard methods of engagement such as website and public meetings, with an added emphasis on social media. Good use of online surveys and “Meeting in a Box” toolkit.
- Whatcom County Public Participation Plan (2021) – Outlines engagement opportunities and procedures on specific stages and projects in the update process.
4. Notifying the State
RCW 36.70A.106 states that cities and counties must notify the Department of Commerce of "intent to adopt"” an updated plan or regulations at least 60 days prior to final adoption, which includes sending a copy of the proposed amendments to the department. Upon a request by a local government, Commerce may grant "expedited review" for proposed development regulations amendments, which would result in a reduction of the 60-day review time period if the request is granted (RCW 36.70A.106(3)(b)).
5. Adopting Periodic Updates
Once the language of the final updates has been agreed upon, the legislative body needs to take formal action indicating that the community has reviewed and evaluated the comprehensive plan and adopting any amendments or changes to the plan and development regulations.
Cities and counties must additionally send a copy of the comprehensive plan and development regulations to Commerce within 10 days after final adoption.
Examples of Periodic Update Ordinances
- Bothell Ordinance No. 2171 (2015) – Adopts amendments under periodic review process
- Grandview Ordinance No. 2016-32 (2016) – Adopts a periodic review process
- Kittitas County Ordinance No. 2014-015 (2014) – Amends county code as part of comprehensive plan update; includes both procedural and county commission findings
- Port Orchard Ordinance No. 014-16 (2014) – Amends comprehensive plan, zoning map, and transportation elements. Includes full text of comprehensive plan
- North Bonneville Ordinance No. 1021 (2013) – Amends the comprehensive plan, includes the small number of strikethrough revisions
- Selah Ordinance No. 2018 (2017) – Cited by the State Department of Commerce as a particularly good example of a GMA periodic update ordinance
Examples of 60-Day Transmittal Letters
- Department of Commerce: State Agency Notice for Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulation Amendments (2019) – Submittal instructions for city and county planning departments to provide under the Growth Management Act
- Wenatchee Notice of Intent to Adopt Comprehensive Plan Amendment (2018) – Contains listed amendments including the city capital facilities plan and transportation improvement plan
Annual Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process (Optional)
In addition to the major, periodic comprehensive plan review and updates that are required by law, numerous local jurisdictions consider proposed amendments on a more frequent basis, often annually. Having a more frequent process allows a community to amend its comprehensive plan quickly to respond to a major change in circumstances and stay relevant to local needs. Under RCW 36.70A.130(2), however, cities and counties may consider proposed amendments no more frequently than once per year, with some exceptions.
Rather than adopting changes on a piecemeal basis, proposed amendments must be considered "concurrently so the cumulative effect of the various proposals can be ascertained." Local jurisdictions that consider such amendments typically establish a docket of proposed amendments that will be considered together on an annual cycle (or other specified period).
Examples of Annual Comprehensive Plan Amendment Processes
- Redmond Annual Amendments (2021) – Information on how to submit an application for a proposed amendment and how to participate in the review process. Also includes the docket of proposed amendments.
- Pierce County Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process (2023) – Amendments to the Pierce County Comprehensive Plan are considered every two years.
- Puyallup 2021 Annual Amendments (2021) – Provides information on upcoming public hearings regarding annual amendments and instructions for providing written comments
- SeaTac Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process (2021) – Includes schedule for amendments, review process, and additions to the preliminary and final dockets; done on a biennial basis.
- Spokane Valley Annual Comprehensive Plan Amendments (2021) – Includes amendment summaries and links to staff reports for each amendment
Growth Management Monitoring Programs
A growth management monitoring program can help local jurisdictions track where growth is going and how well various pieces of the growth management program are working. Information from the monitoring program can help cities and counties to fine tune plan policies and development regulations to better achieve growth management goals.
Below are a few examples of local growth management monitoring programs.
- Clark County Comprehensive Growth Management Plan Monitoring
- Redmond Transportation Master Plan: Performance Measurement (2013) – A dashboard for the transportation element of the city’s comprehensive plan
- Seattle Population & Demographics – Includes links to comprehensive plan monitoring, housing growth, employment growth, urban center growth, and more
- Snohomish County Reports – Includes links to growth monitoring reports and buildable lands project, as well as housing needs
- Washington State Department of Commerce: GMA Periodic Update – A comprehensive set of resources for GMA updates, including a guidebook with samples, checklists, and other tools.
- Association of Washington Cities: GMA Comp Plan Conversation Starters – A series of 12, 5-8 minute videos for councilmembers and commissioners covering everything from roles and responsibilities, budget, and economic development to implementation and community engagement.
- Puget Sound Regional Council: Plan Review Resources – Extensive list of resources related to different plan elements and current issue areas should be helpful for plan updates in other areas.