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From Vision to Reality: Implementing your Comprehensive Plan

By Joseph W.Tovar, FAICP

Cities and counties planning under the Growth Management Act (GMA) are required to periodically update both their comprehensive plans and development regulations (codes). King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, and their 77 cities, are required to update their plans and codes by June of 2015, while other local governments in the state have their updates due in following years.

While most people are aware that their development regulations must be consistent with the comprehensive plan, some may not realize that the duty goes beyond mere consistency. In fact, the GMA requires development regulations to be "consistent with and implement the comprehensive plan." RCW 36.70A.040

Apart from meeting a legal mandate, it just makes good sense to be sure that the plan you adopt is actually implemented. Effective implementation is the difference between having a good plan on paper and having a great community on the ground.

Implementing measures fall into three broad categories: (1) development regulations that control the location, form and character of private projects; (2) capital projects which are financed, designed, built and maintained by local governments; and (3) programs that in some cases involve active local government participation and in other cases simply mean endorsement or coordination of voluntary private efforts.

Development Regulations

It's important at the outset to understand the difference between comprehensive plans and development regulations. The GMA defines a comprehensive plan as "a generalized land use policy document" and development regulations as "controls that are placed on the use of land."RCW 36.70A.030. Simply put, plans provide guidance to implementing measures, they are not regulations. Regulations control development permits, comprehensive plans don't. The two have to work together, and, as noted below, with other implementing measures.

There is no one right way to regulate land use. The occasion of the GMA updates may be a good time to review how well current regulations implement your plan and whether to consider other options.

Traditional Zoning

Most cities in the U.S. continue to rely on traditional use-based or Euclidean codes, the latter term being a reference to the 1926 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Village of Euclid, Ohio vs. Ambler Realty Co.1 In Euclid, the Court ruled that a local ordinance limiting the range of permitted uses within discrete zones did not violate the Constitution. The objective of the Village of Euclid's code was to separate unlike uses. Because it was upheld, the next seven decades of American zoning codes generally followed this pattern of separating and segregating unlike uses.

Although Euclidean codes have been adapted to include standards for building heights, setbacks, signs, parking, and landscaping, their primary focus has generally remained on land uses and densities. They typically are accompanied by a zoning map which designates a dozen or fewer discrete "zones," in which the permitted uses are homogenous, e.g., industrial uses allowed only in industrial zones, multifamily uses only in multifamily zones, etc.

Post-Euclidean Codes - Mixing Uses, Focusing on Context and Aesthetics

In the final decades of the last century, many jurisdictions began to adopt codes that recognized the economic, environmental, and social benefits of mixing rather than segregating uses. New zones were created to facilitate either horizontal or vertical mixing of certain uses, with performance or design requirements imposed to address concerns about potential conflicts between unlike uses. Most cities in our state that have adopted such design regulations have targeted them to a particular district, such as a downtown, but have retained the more traditional Euclidean approach of homogenous zones for single family, and most multifamily, districts.

For the past two decades, communities in the Pacific Northwest have adopted design guidelines in order to shape more context-sensitive development, regulating such things as roof shapes, upper story setbacks, building facades, and other site details. Some cities created design review boards to measure compliance of proposed projects with illustrated design guidelines, while others codified a menu of design standards for greater predictability and ease of administration by staff.

Photographs, sketches and diagrams typically accompany design regulations, not only to clearly convey a community's desired outcomes, but also to pass legal muster. A landmark design review case in Washington found that simply using words like "harmonious" or "attractive" is too vague to be legally sufficient.2 An example of a design guideline-based regulation is the City of Kirkland's Downtown code.3

Emergence of Form-Based Codes

Some jurisdictions, particularly in other parts of the U.S., have moved even further away from the Euclidean focus on land use and density and in the direction of more prescriptive controls on building form and design. Referred to as form-based codes, such controls generally contain a short list of prohibited uses, rather than the extensive list of permitted and conditional uses found in most Euclidean codes.

Form-based codes specify on a block-by-block basis the permitted configuration, orientation and other details of architectural and site design. The premise of such form-based codes is that success in creating diverse, walkable and lively urban environments depends more on the details of the form of new development than the uses or densities within the building envelopes. Another premise is that market forces are better equipped to determine the actual uses that should occupy the built form, and to enable adaptive re-use over time.

One example of a form-based code in our state is the City of Mountlake Terrace's Downtown Plan and Standards.4Some cities use a combination of traditional use-based zoning, design-based and form-based codes. One example of such a "hybrid" is the City of Bothell Downtown Code.5

In making decisions about the kinds of regulations needed to implement your comprehensive plan, there are a number of factors to consider. These include the nature, scope, location, and rate of growth you expect your community to experience. Also important are the resources you have available to update your code and to administer your permit process. Another consideration is the preferred balance between flexibility, which is of great interest to permit applicants, and certainty, which is of great interest to both permit applicants and project neighbors.

It's always a good idea to periodically review your development regulations in order to avoid nasty surprises. Several Washington cities have learned to their dismay that our state's permissive vesting law enables a project to proceed, even if it is inconsistent with specific provisions of the comprehensive plan. That is because, as noted above, permits are controlled by development regulations, not by comprehensive plans. Trying to block a vested permit is a frustrating, expensive, and almost always fruitless effort. The best way to head off such outcomes is to be proactive - include in the periodic update of your development code a focused scan to ferret out loopholes and ambiguities.

Capital Projects

One of the innovations of the GMA is the emphasis it places on the need to match public infrastructure priorities with the land uses designated on your plan's future land use map. Before the GMA, most capital projects from roads to parks to utilities were somewhat disconnected from the comprehensive planning process. Capital projects were frequently the exclusive province of Finance and Public Works Departments, with a resulting tenuous connection to a city's overall vision, land use, and service priorities.

The comprehensive nature of planning under the GMA has broken down these silos. The statute now establishes the comprehensive plan as the blueprint for fitting all these pieces together in a more efficient and effective way. The Act's consistency requirement obliges capital facility planning to be a truly multi-disciplinary effort involving land use, engineering, and public finance professionals working in conjunction with citizen planning commissioners and elected policy makers.

The capital infrastructure required to serve the future land use map is determined by conducting an inventory of existing facilities, establishing as a matter of local policy an adequate level of service to accommodate the projected growth, and measuring the difference between what is available and what is needed. From this assessment a list of prioritized capital improvements is developed for inclusion in the Capital Facilities Element (CFE) of the comprehensive plan. The CFE guides a project-financing schedule adopted in the 6-year capital improvement program.

Local governments have broad discretion in determining the levels of service that they deem to be "adequate" to support the future land use map. If there is a gap between the adopted levels of service, say for parks or roads, and the jurisdiction's ability to pay, there are a limited number of options. One is to identify additional revenue sources to support the projects needed to maintain adequacy. Another is to revisit the land use assumptions to adjust the "demand" side of the service equation. Others options are to adjust the level of service or method of measuring adequacy.

Many cities have recognized that targeted capital investments can stimulate private investment decisions. Some cities regard publicly funded capital improvements as part of a "return on investment" strategy, with the payback in terms of increased economic vitality and strengthened tax base. For example, the recent dramatic transformation of downtown Bothell has been shaped by the city's investment of $90M in capital projects as part of a $150 million program of planned infrastructure improvements. It is projected that, over a 25-year period, Bothell's public improvements and strategic actions will leverage $650 million in private investment.


The third broad category of implementing measures is programs. These could be official city or county programs, such as property tax exemption (PTE) policies to incent developers to provide some number of more affordable units in their projects. Several cities have used PTE to stimulate housing development in targeted areas. The City of Shoreline has had PTE policies in place in its North City Business District for over a decade, resulting in the addition of several hundred multifamily units in that mixed-use center.

Another example of a program is the inter-jurisdictional agreement to address issues of mutual interest. A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH) is a collaboration of King County and 15 of its cities to focus on housing issues. ARCH assists these governments in the updating of the housing elements of their comprehensive plans. It also coordinates them with countywide objectives, such as defining a regional housing need and a format for incorporating housing and affordable housing fair shares into local plans.

PTE and ARCH are examples of successful programs that are specifically mentioned in many city comprehensive plans. Such programs are neither regulations nor capital projects, although they are most effective when they work hand-in-glove with those other implementation tools. There is a multiplier effect when PTE is focused in a district where targeted investments to local infrastructure have been made, and codes improved to facilitate development, for example, by "right-sizing" parking requirements.

Many comprehensive plans also identify and lend local government endorsement to voluntary programs to further policy objectives like building social capital or a culture of environmental stewardship. To that end, many cities host farmers' markets at little or no cost on publicly owned property, building social capital in the community and an awareness of urban/rural connections.

Other programs call on individual citizens to help maintain or improve environmental conditions. Examples include the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program for homeowners and businesses, volunteer work parties to remove ivy from trees on public property, and Streamkeepers, who work to improve water quality and habitat values of urban streams. Many cities have found that such voluntary programs complement and extend the reach of adopted plan policies far beyond what is possible with just regulations and capital projects.

Coordination of Plan-Making and Plan Implementation Work Programs

The updates of the comprehensive plans and development regulation oblige city and county elected officials and their staffs to consider how to coordinate these two work programs. One way to frame this dialogue is to answer the following questions:

  • Have we adopted clear scopes of work for the related, but different, efforts to update the comprehensive plan and the development regulations?
  • Do some of our existing plan policies read more like regulations? If so, should we propose to move such requirements from the plan into our development code?
  • Do we have a good match between the kind of regulations we want to have and the size and expertise of our staff and planning commission?
  • What are the key capital projects that we need to prioritize to help achieve our land use goals?
  • What programs, including volunteer programs, do we now use to achieve specific objectives identified in our comprehensive plan? What opportunities are there to work with citizen volunteers or other partners?

Additional learning resources have recently been made available for city elected officials, planning commissioners, staff and community members. The Association of Washington Cities has posted to its website a series of short video segments about the GMA updates. These videos, each about seven minutes in length, provide overviews of the Act's requirements, issues to expect, methods and choices to consider, and success stories about city plan-making and implementation.6

1.Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926)

2.Washington law specifically recognizes design review as a legitimate purpose for regulations, provided that requirements are not vague. Anderson v. Issaquah, 70 Wn. App. 64, 851 P.2d 744, 1993 Wash. App.

3.Kirkland Downtown code

4.Mountlake Terrace form-based code

5.Link to Bothell's hybrid code

6.AWC page with video segments

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About Joseph W. Tovar

Joseph W. Tovar writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Joseph W. Tovar, FAICP, helps communities create visions of their preferred futures, and how to implement them through plans, codes, projects, strategies and organizational training. He has served as planning director for the cities of Shoreline, Kirkland and Covington and as Chair of the Growth Management Hearings Board. In private practice, Mr. Tovar has provided consultant services to private clients, including Washington counties and cities, as well as the Association of Washington Cities. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and an Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.