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New Legislation Related to Climate and the Natural Environment

Several small images suggesting environmental and pollution prevention laws against the word 2023

This blog includes brief summaries of six bills related to climate change and the natural environment that were passed during the most recent Washington State legislative session and signed into law by the governor. Please consult with your agency’s attorney for a full review and interpretations. All bills took effect on July 23, 2023.

Incorporating Climate Change into Comprehensive Plans

HB 1181 makes significant changes to the Growth Management Act (GMA) to incorporate climate change into local government comprehensive plans.

In addition to adding a 14th planning goal related to climate change and resiliency and a 15th goal related to shorelines, it makes changes to the mandatory land use and transportation elements and adds a new climate change element.

Key changes for the land use element are as follows:

  • It designates the proposed general distribution, location, and extent of green spaces and forests within the urban growth area (UGA).
  • It gives special consideration to environmental justice, including efforts to avoid creating or worsening environmental health disparities.
  • It suggests urban planning approaches that reduce vehicle miles traveled without increasing greenhouse gases elsewhere in the state.
  • It reduces and mitigates the risk to lives and property posed by wildfires by using land use planning tools.

Key changes for the transportation element are as follows:

  • It incorporates multimodal level of service into land use assumptions used in estimating travel.
  • It incorporates active transportation facilities and multimodal level of service, consistent with environmental justice goals, into facilities and services needs.
  • It prioritizes future facilities and services that will provide the greatest multimodal safety benefit within forecasts of multimodal transportation demand and needs that inform the transportation element.

A new element addressing climate change 

HB 1181 also introduced a new climate change and resiliency element, which includes sub-elements for greenhouse gas emissions reduction and for resiliency. 

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 for all other jurisdictions.

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.)

This 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.

More information, including funding (to be announced), is available on Commerce’s Climate Program webpage. The Climate Element Planning Guidance, linked on this webpage, is expected to be updated by the end of the year to reflect the new legislation.

In addition to Commerce’s guidance, MRSC’s Climate Change series may also serve as a useful resource as local governments incorporate these new requirements into their comprehensive plans. For example, our Local Government Climate Change Documents webpage includes several examples of climate action plans, hazard mitigation plans, and comprehensive plans with goals and policies related to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. We expect to continue updating this and other MRSC climate-related webpages with additional examples in the weeks and months to come.

Impact Fee Revenues for Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities

Thanks to changes brought about in SB 5452, fully planning jurisdictions may spend transportation impact fee revenues on certain pedestrian and bicycle facilities in addition to public streets and roads. The bill amends the definition of public facilities to add “bicycle and pedestrian facilities that were designed with multimodal commuting as an intended use.”

In adopting this bill, the legislature noted that these options provide numerous benefits, including greenhouse gas emissions reductions and connections between communities and job centers.

Clean Energy Siting

Per HB 1216, an optional, fully coordinated permit process is established for clean energy projects that don’t apply to the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council under RCW 80.50.  Clean energy projects are defined in the new legislation and include clean energy product manufacturing facilities, electrical transmission facilities, and biomass energy facilities as defined in RCW 19.405.020.

The intent of this optional process is to provide more efficient and effective siting and permitting of new clean energy projects throughout the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and provide clean energy jobs, among other benefits.

As part of the process, the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) will conduct an initial assessment of the proposed project review and permitting actions for coordination purposes, ensure the proponent has been informed of all information needed to apply for relevant state and local permits, facilitate communication between project proponents and agency staff, and manage a fully coordinated permitted process. The initial assessment, which is required to be completed within 60 days of the request, will be documented in writing, provided to the project proponent, and made available to the public.

A few key points for local governments include:

  • Counties and cities with clean energy projects determined as eligible for the fully coordinated permit process are required to enter into an agreement with Ecology or the project proponents for expedited project completion.
  • During project review for the construction or improvement of electric power facilities, a local government may not require an applicant to demonstrate its necessity or utility, other than to require as part of the application documentation required by federal agencies or the utilities and transportation commission.
  • Counties may not prohibit the installation of wind and solar resource evaluation equipment necessary for the design and environmental planning of a renewable energy project.

State Environmental Policy Act Exemptions for Housing

HB 5412 expands the infill development State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) categorical exemption to include residential housing units, primarily to reduce local governments’ land use permitting workloads; thereby facilitating more housing development. Key points of the bill include:

  • All project actions with one or more residential housing units that meet certain criteria within incorporated urban growth areas (UGAs) or middle housing (see the definition of middle housing as noted in HB 1110) within unincorporated UGAs are categorically exempt from SEPA.
  • Cities and counties are required to prepare an analysis for the exempted project that analyzes multimodal transportation impacts and includes documentation that the requirements for environmental analysis, protection, and mitigation have been adequately addressed. The requirements may be addressed in comprehensive plans; subarea plans; development regulations; or other applicable local, state, and federal regulations.
  • Prior to finalizing the analysis, an agency is required to give a minimum of 60 days’ notice to affected tribes, relevant state agencies, other jurisdictions that may be impacted, and to the public.
  • The categorical exemption is effective 30 days after the action.
  • Until September 30, 2025, all project actions that propose to develop one or more “residential housing or middle housing units” within a city west of the crest of the Cascade Mountains with a population of 700,000 or more (i.e., Seattle) are categorically exempt from SEPA. After this date, these project actions may use the exemption process.

Adoption of County Critical Area Ordinances by Cities

Under the changes outlined in SB 5374, a fully planning city with a population fewer than 25,000 may adopt the county’s critical areas regulations by reference to satisfy the GMA’s critical areas requirements, provided the county’s critical areas regulations are not subject to administrative or judicial appeals at the time of a city’s adoption.

If a city chooses to adopt the county regulations by reference, it must incorporate future amendments to critical areas policies and development regulations of the county. A city that adopts the county’s critical areas regulations by reference is not required to take legislative action to review and update development regulations protecting critical areas under RCW 36.70A.130.

Review Schedule for Shoreline Master Programs

HB 1544 expands the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) review schedule to every 10 years, instead of eight, and extends the next due date by one year (by June 30 of each deadline year) for the following counties and cities within those counties:

  • By 2029: King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish.
  • By 2030: Clallam, Clark, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, Mason, San Juan, Skagit, Thurston, and Whatcom.
  • By 2031: Benton, Chelan, Cowlitz, Douglas, Franklin, Kittitas, Skamania, Spokane, Walla Walla, and Yakima.
  • By 2032: Adams, Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Grant, Grays Harbor, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pacific, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Wahkiakum, and Whitman.


For background on information discussed in this blog, here are related MRSC webpages:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lisa Pool

About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing-related regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.