skip navigation
Share this:

Comprehensive Planning

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.

Required and Optional Elements

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
(RCW 36.70A.070)

  • Land Use
  • Housing
  • Capital Facilities Plan
  • Utilities
  • Rural Development (counties only)
  • Transportation
  • Ports (mandatory for cities with annual maritime port revenues exceeding $60 million, RCW 36.70A.085)

Optional Comp Plan Elements

  • Economic Development*
  • Parks and Recreation*
  • Conservation (RCW 36.70A.080)
  • Solar Energy (RCW 36.70A.080)
  • Recreation (RCW 36.70A.080)
  • Subarea Plans (neighborhoods, rural villages, urban growth areas, tribal areas, etc.)
  • Ports (optional for cities with annual maritime port revenues of $20 million to $60 million, RCW 36.70A.085)

*These elements 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).

Land Use Element

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.

Essential Public Facilities

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:

  • Airports
  • 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, and secure community transition facilities (defined in RCW 71.09.020)
  • Regional transit authority facilities (defined in RCW 81.112.020)

No local comprehensive plan or development regulation may preclude the siting of essential public facilities (RCW 36.70A.200). Cities and counties must develop criteria for siting essential public facilities (see also WAC 365-196-550 and WAC 365-196-570).

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).

Levels of Service

Comprehensive plans also include level of service (LOS) standards – 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. 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 usually expressed as A through F, while for most other facilities LOS is typically expressed 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.

Coordination with Neighboring Jurisdictions

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 facilitate this, counties, in cooperation with cities within their boundaries, are responsible for establishing countywide planning policies that establish a framework for where population growth and infrastructure investment will be directed within a region (RCW 36.70A.210). Note that these countywide policies and decisions do not alter the land use powers of cities.


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).

Under the GMA, a local agency’s development regulations (such as zoning) and capital budget decisions must be made in conformity with its comprehensive plan (RCW 36.70A.120).

These regulatory and financial tools can also be supported by other efforts such as volunteer activities, citizen and business engagement, and educational programs.

Comprehensive Plan Amendments and Updates

Each city and county planning under GMA must conduct a thorough review of its comprehensive plan every eight years, 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 Comprehensive Plan/Development Regulation Updates.

Examples of Comprehensive Plans

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

County Comprehensive Plans & Ordinances

Subarea and Neighborhood Plans

  • 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

Recommended Resources

Below are a few useful resources related to comprehensive planning and the Growth Management Act.

Last Modified: July 12, 2021