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.
New legislation: Effective July 23, 2023:
- E2SHB 1181 adds a climate change and resiliency goal to the Growth Management Act (GMA) and a required climate change and resiliency element to a GMA comprehensive plan.
- SB 5457 allows cities and towns with fewer than 500 people to opt out of the full GMA comprehensive plan requirements under certain circumstances.
We have updated the information on this page.
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 Climate Change and Resiliency element was added in 2023 as a mandatory element 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.
Per RCW 36.70A.020, local governments are required to “plan for and accommodate” housing affordable to all economic segments, promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, and encourage preservation of existing housing stock. RCW 36.70A.070 lists all the requirements for the housing element. Below is a summary of the requirements adopted in 2021 as listed in the Department of Commerce's Updating GMA Housing Elements page:
- Planning for sufficient land capacity for housing needs, including all economic segments of the population (moderate, low, very low and extremely low income, as well as emergency housing and permanent supportive housing).
- Providing moderate density housing options within Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), including but not limited to duplexes, triplexes and townhomes.
- Making adequate provisions for housing for existing and projected needs for all economic segments of the community, including documenting programs and actions needed to achieve housing availability.
- Identifying racially disparate impacts, displacement and exclusion in housing policies and regulations, and beginning to undo those impacts; and identifying areas at higher risk of displacement and establishing anti-displacement policies.
The statutory changes signed into law in 2023 require some or all GMA planning communities to accommodate a greater number of “missing middle” housing and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). For more information and guidance on these topics, see the below resources:
- MRSC: Missing Middle Housing
- MRSC: Accessory Dwelling Units
- Department of Commerce: Updating GMA Housing Elements
The GMA was amended in 2023 (see HB 1181) to add a climate change and resiliency goal and element requirement to ensure that regional governments are prepared to adapt to and mitigate the effects of a changing climate (RCW 36.70A.070(9)). This element consists of two sub-elements:
- Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Sub-element – Required for the 11 most populous counties and their cities, including goals, policies, and strategies to reduce emissions. This can be done via reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or various other methods.
- Resilience Sub-Element – Required for all fully planning cities and counties and encouraged for all cities and counties. It includes goals that better prepare a government for emergency response to climate impacts and natural hazards. The greenhouse gas emissions reduction sub-element is mandatory for the state’s 11 most populous counties and their cities (6,000 population and above as of April 1, 2021, per Office of Financial Management estimates). It is encouraged that this sub-element be developed by all other jurisdictions.
The Greenhouse Gas sub-element and its related development regulations must identify actions the jurisdiction will take during the planning cycle that are consistent with the Washington State Department of Commerce’s (Commerce) early Climate Element Planning Guidance, which will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. These actions must also prioritize reductions that benefit overburdened communities to maximize the co-benefits of reduced air pollution and environmental justice.
The resiliency sub-element is mandatory for all counties and cities fully planning under the GMA, and it is encouraged for all other jurisdictions. This sub-element must include goals, policies, and programs that identify, protect, and enhance natural areas and communities to foster resiliency to climate impacts and address natural hazards created or exacerbated by climate change. A natural hazard mitigation plan or similar plan that meets certain requirements may be adopted by reference to satisfy this sub-element.
Deadlines for these new requirements start soon for the 11 largest counties (and certain cities), as outlined below (June 30 of each deadline year):
- 2025: Clark, Skagit, Thurston, and Whatcom
- 2026: Benton, Franklin, and Spokane
- 2029: King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish (These four are only required to update the transportation element and add a climate element.)
For more information on the new climate change and resiliency element requirements, see the MRSC blog post New Legislation Related to Climate and the Natural Environment, and the following Department of Commerce resources:
Each comprehensive plan must also address "essential public facilities" that are typically difficult to site, which are usually included in the land use element.
Cities and counties are required to establish a process for identifying and siting essential public facilities (RCW 36.70A.200, 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)
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(1)(b) states that essential public facilities (EPF) 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 (7) or (16) or chapter 10.77 or 71.05 RCW.
This statutory provision is aimed primarily at private detention facilities, such as those operated by contract 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.
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.
RCW 36.70A.070(6)(a)(iii)(B) requires local governments to create “[m]ultimodal level of service standards for all locally owned arterials [...].” See example below.
Example of Multimodal LOS
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).
Local governments must also include federally recognized tribes in local planning processes through a memorandum of agreement if the tribe(s) elects to participate, per RCW 36.70A.40. According to the Washington Department of Commerce, this should be added into the countywide planning policies and is a new comprehensive plan element that is required for the 2024-2027 periodic update cycle.
The GMA places a strong emphasis on implementation, and a comprehensive plan’s goals and objectives cannot be achieved without strong regulatory and financial support (such as zoning, capital spending, and non-capital spending). Added 2022, RCW 36.70A.130 requires 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 10 years in accordance with the schedule provided in RCW 36.70A.130 and revise its plan if necessary.
In addition, these jurisdictions have the option to 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.
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
In addition, RCW 36.70A.130 has a new requirement for local governments to create “an implementation progress report detailing the progress they have achieved in implementing their comprehensive plan five years after the review and revision of their comprehensive plan.”
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.
- Bellingham Comprehensive Plan – 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 (2022) – 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 – 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 – 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
- 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 2016-2036 (2016) – A well-organized plan and user-friendly website, with a useful “Plan Regulatory and Environmental Maps” webpage
- Pierce County Comprehensive Plan – 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 Home – Offers links to current plan and information on their upcoming update.
- Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan – A very detailed and well-organized plan
Subarea and Neighborhood Plans
- Lakewood Downtown Subarea Plan (2019) – Focuses on mixed use and has a strong public outreach component. Winner of a 2019 Governor’s Smart Communities Award.
- Kent: Rally the Valley Subarea Plan (2020) – A plan to revitalize the industrial sector in Kent by modifying land uses. Winner of the 2020 Governor’s Smart Communities Award.
- Renton: Rainier/Grady Junction TOD Subarea Plan (2021) – With Sound Transit’s expansion of Bus Rapid Transit service expanding to Renton and the relocation of the transit center the city created a subarea plan to guide future development. Winner of the 2022 Governor’s Smart Communities Award.
Below are a few useful resources related to comprehensive planning and the Growth Management Act:
- Department of Commerce: Short Course on Local Planning - Comprehensive planning
- Association of Washington Cities: GMA Comp Plan Conversation Starters – A series of short videos for councilmembers and commissioners