This page provides an overview of comprehensive planning for cities and counties in Washington State, including required and optional elements under the Growth Management Act, essential public facilities, levels of service, and examples of comprehensive plans.
Some other local governments are also required to adopt “comprehensive plans” under different statutes, such as port districts (see RCW 53.20.010 and our Port District Resources page) and water-sewer districts (see RCW 57.16.010), but those documents are much more limited in scope and are not discussed here.
Comprehensive plans are the centerpiece of local planning efforts. A comprehensive plan articulates a series of goals, objectives, policies, actions, and standards that are intended to guide the day-to-day decisions of elected officials and local government staff.
Many cities and counties are required to enact comprehensive plans, while others choose to do so voluntarily.
The Growth Management Act (GMA) requires many cities and counties in Washington to adopt comprehensive plans, and it lays out the following mandatory and optional elements:
|Mandatory Comp Plan Elements
|Optional Comp Plan Elements|
*The elements with an asterix are listed as mandatory in RCW 36.70A.070(7) and (8), but they are actually optional because funds have not been appropriated to help pay for preparing them, per RCW 36.70A.070(9).
While all of these elements are important, the land use element sets the direction of future growth in a community and is usually depicted as a future land use map. The future land use map, which is policy-oriented, is then implemented in large part by the official zoning map, a regulatory tool.
Since these maps are so closely linked, a zoning change cannot be approved unless it is consistent with the future land use map.
Each comprehensive plan must also address "essential public facilities" that are typically difficult to site, which are usually included in the land use element. By statute (RCW 36.70A.200), essential public facilities include:
- State education facilities
- State or regional transportation facilities (defined in RCW 47.06.140)
- State and local correctional facilities
- Solid waste handling facilities
- Inpatient facilities, including substance abuse facilities, mental health facilities, group homes, community facilities (defined in RCW 72.05.020)
- Secure community transition facilities (defined in RCW 71.09.020)
- Regional transit authority facilities (defined in RCW 81.112.020)
Statutory conditions, however, are placed on the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families’ ability to site "new community facilities" east of the crest of the Cascade mountains; see RCW 36.70A.200(c) for more details.
A 2020 change to RCW 36.70A.200(b) states that essential public facilities do not include:
[F]acilities that are operated by a private entity in which persons are detained in custody under process of law pending the outcome of legal proceedings but are not used for punishment, correction, counseling, or rehabilitation following the conviction of a criminal offense. Facilities included under this subsection (1)(b) shall not include facilities detaining persons under RCW 71.09.020 (6) or (15) or chapter 10.77 or 71.05 RCW.
This statutory provision is aimed primarily at private detention facilities, such as those operated on behalf of clients like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and means that such facilities are not “protected” by the GMA’s EPF provisions; therefore, they can be restricted or prohibited by a local zoning code.
Cities and counties are required to establish a process for identifying and siting essential public facilities (RCW 36.70A.200; see also WAC 365-196-550 and WAC 365-196-570). No local comprehensive plan or development regulation may preclude the siting of essential public facilities, but a local government may establish its own processes and criteria for reviewing and approving them (with conditions if deemed appropriate).
It should be noted that such facilities do not necessarily have to be owned or operated by a public entity, as long as they provide a public service (for example, a group home offering inpatient services).
Comprehensive plans also address levels of service (LOS) by identifying minimum standards for how many public facilities or services are required to adequately serve the population. Local governments are obligated to set LOS standards for certain transportation facilities to meet the GMA’s concurrency requirement – for example, a new development may not be built unless there are adequate transportation facilities to serve it either at the time of, or within six years after occupancy. For more information, see our page on Concurrency.
While transportation is the only element requiring LOS standards and concurrency, local governments often include other LOS standards in their comprehensive plans as well. These standards can address a wide variety of other public facilities, such as (but not limited to) parks, schools, stormwater, solid waste, libraries, and police and fire protection services.
Transportation LOS standards are often expressed using an A through F scoring system, while for most other facilities LOS is typically shown as an average or ratio (such as minimum park acreage per 1,000 residents, average emergency response times, or average class sizes).
The definition of "adequate" facilities and services may vary even among similar-sized communities. For instance, "adequate" park acreage may vary depending on the percentage of seniors or youth, natural assets such as lakes or beaches, and other factors. If the existing ratio of park acreage to population seems adequate to residents, those ratios may serve well as standards for the future. If there are waitlists for the use of playfields and swimming pools, residents may want higher standards.
A city or county must coordinate its comprehensive plan with any other cities or counties with which it shares a common border (RCW 36.70A.100).
To help facilitate this requirement, counties, in cooperation with cities within their boundaries, are responsible for establishing "countywide planning policies" (sometimes referred to as CPPs) that create a framework for where population growth and infrastructure investment will be directed within a given county (RCW 36.70A.210).
Under the GMA, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) develops population projections for the state and each county. Each "fully planning" county is then mandated to determine, in consultation with cities, where that growth should be directed to occur. Once these growth projections are adopted, then the county and cities are to use them in their comprehensive planning processes and make sure that their plans can accommodate the projected level of growth (RCW 36.70A.115).
The GMA places a strong emphasis on implementation, and the goals in a comprehensive plan cannot be achieved without strong regulatory and financial support (such as zoning, capital spending, and non-capital spending). In 2022, a requirement was added for larger counties and cities to submit an implementation progress report on key outcomes five years after the review and revision of their comprehensive plans.
These regulatory and financial tools can also be supported by other efforts such as volunteer activities, citizen and business engagement, and educational programs.
Each city and county planning under the GMA must conduct a thorough review of its comprehensive plan every eight years (soon to be every 10 years after the completion of the current cycle), according to the schedule provided in RCW 36.70A.130, and revise its plan if necessary.
In addition, these jurisdictions may consider smaller comprehensive plan amendments no more than once per year, with some exceptions (RCW 36.70A.130(2)). 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."
For more information, see our page on the Comprehensive Plan Update Process.
Below are a few sample comprehensive plans and subarea plans adopted under the Growth Management Act. A more thorough listing of comprehensive plans can be found in our City and Town Profiles (click on the city) and County Profiles.
City Comprehensive Plans & Ordinances
- Bellingham Comprehensive Plan Update (2016) – A well thought-out plan, with a good list of background information included on the city’s comprehensive plan webpage
- Colfax 2035 Comprehensive Plan Update (2016) – An award-winning plan by a small community that is not required to “fully plan” under GMA. A 2016 Governor’s Smart Communities Award winner.
- Ellensburg Comprehensive Plan (2021) – A thorough plan with implementable program statements and action items for each element
- Kennewick Comprehensive Plan (2021) – A well-organized and formatted planning document
- Mount Vernon Comprehensive Plan (2016) – A plan with broad goals, focused objectives, and implementable policies. This webpage’s design allows the reader to focus on specific portions of each element.
- Mukilteo Comprehensive Plan 2035 (2015) – A compelling and easy-to-read plan that contains a clear "intent statement" at the beginning of the document. A 2015 APA/PAW Planning Award winner.
- SeaTac Comprehensive Plan (2020) – Has a good graphic design and a useful implementation strategy matrix at the end of each element
- Spokane Valley Comprehensive Plan 2017-2037 (2016) – Very user-friendly format, with lots of good graphics/maps and an innovative implementation strategies section
- Walla Walla Comprehensive Plan Update 2040 (2018) – A well thought-out plan with detailed policies and a "Translating Policy into Action" section for each element
County Comprehensive Plans & Ordinances
- Chelan County Comprehensive Plan (2017) – Well-organized by multiple county regions with unique community planning strategies
- Cowlitz County Comprehensive Plan (2017) – Organized set of plans and policies with detailed considerations of state regulations
- Garfield County Comprehensive Plan (2019) – Joint plan with the City of Pomeroy. Detailed and well-organized plan for smaller counties.
- Kitsap County Comprehensive Plan (2016) – A well-organized plan and user-friendly website, with a useful “Plan Regulatory and Environmental Maps” webpage
- Pierce County Comprehensive Plan (2021) – An easy-to-use plan and website that allows the user to quickly find specific elements or the individual community plans
- Thurston County Comprehensive Plan (2020) – A thorough planning document that includes a “Health and Human Health” element
- Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan (2022) – A very detailed and well-organized plan
Subarea and Neighborhood Plans
- Lakewood Downtown Plan (2019) – Focuses on mixed use and has a strong public outreach component. Winner of a 2019 Governor’s Smart Communities Award.
- Shoreline 185th Street Station Subarea Plan (2015) – Has a focus on sustainability/livability, an incremental implementation strategy, and a strong public engagement process. A 2016 Governor’s Smart Communities winner.
- Tacoma South Downtown Subarea Plan (2014) – Combined subarea plan and EIS for area including Tacoma Dome and Brewery districts, UW-Tacoma campus, and Foss Waterway waterfront redevelopment area. Winner of 2014 Governor’s Smart Communities Award and 2014 APA/PAW Award for Excellence.
Below are a few useful resources related to comprehensive planning and the Growth Management Act.
- Washington State Department of Commerce: Growth Management Services – Provides guidance, training, grants, and other assistance to local and state agencies to help them implement the Growth Management Act
- Association of Washington Cities: GMA Comp Plan Conversation Starters – A series of short videos for councilmembers and commissioners