GMA 101

Saturday, January 1, 2000


The Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act (GMA) in two successive legislative sessions in 1990 and 1991. The law is an attempt to develop cities wisely while protecting farmland, forests, and habitat. Twenty-nine (of 39) counties and their cities are required to adopt comprehensive plans and development regulations that carry out those plans. The counties must also designate urban growth areas (UGAs), inside of which development is encouraged and outside of which development is discouraged. The comprehensive plans also must designate critical areas to protect the habitat of listed species, agricultural and forest lands that have long-term economic viability, mineral resource lands, and rural areas. Additionally, preexisting development that is neither urban nor rural in character may be designated as a "limited area of more intense development."


Modeled after Oregon's GMA passed nearly 20 years earlier, the Washington GMA is different than the Oregon GMA in several important ways, most notably how it requires counties and cities comply with the law. Instead of having a state agency approve local legislative action, Washington State relies on local citizens actively participate in local decisions and petition state hearings boards when they think a local action is noncompliant with the GMA. Even then, the local action is presumed compliant and will be upheld unless "clearly erroneous."

GMA Goals

The GMA requires counties and cities to balance 14 goals through their comprehensive plans and development regulations: 
(1) encourage urban growth,
(2) reduce sprawl,
(3) encourage multimodal transportation, 
(4) ensure affordable housing, 
(5) encourage economic development, 
(6) protect property rights, 
(7) provide efficient and predictable permitting, 
(8) enhance natural resource industries, 
(9) retain open space and recreation, 
(10) protect the environment, 
(11) encourage citizen participation in local land use planning, 
(12) ensure adequate public services and facilities at the time of new development, 
(13) preserve historic sites, and
(14) carry-out the goals of the Shoreline Management Act with regards to shorelines and critical areas.

Comprehensive Plans

Comprehensive plans must address eight elements: land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, rural, transportation, economic development, and parks and recreation.  RCW 36.70A.070.  Each of these elements have specific requirements that must be planned for and carried out with development regulations.  Additionally, plans may include elements for conservation and solar energy.  RCW 36.70A.080.  The comprehensive plan of a county must be coordinated and consistent with the plans of the cities within the county as well as the adjacent counties.  RCW 36.70A.100.  Additionally, the comprehensive plan of a city must be coordinated and consistent with adjacent cities.  Counties and cities must update their comprehensive plans every seven years.  RCW 36.70A.130(4).

Urban Growth Areas

Counties must designate Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), inside of which growth is encouraged and outside of which growth is discouraged.  RCW 36.70A.110.  UGAs must include all incorporated cities and then adjacent land if necessary to accommodate the 20-year population projection forecasted by the State Office of Financial Management (OFM).  UGAs must be sized to sufficiently house the expected 20-year population projection.  "Sufficient" means both "adequate" and "no more than necessary."  Counties may include a "market factor" to expand the UGA further.  The market factor is applied as a percentage increase to the amount of land needed outside the current UGA to house the population projection.  The market factor is used to reflect "local circumstances" different from the statewide norms that negatively affect the county's capacity to house the 20-year population projection.
UGAs must be reviewed and, if necessary, revised every ten years.  RCW 36.70A.130(3).  Additionally, certain counties are required to conduct a "Buildable Lands Study" every five years.  RCW 36.70A.215.  These two reviews may be combined if the county chooses, but the county must explicitly state it is combining the reviews and the requirements of both reviews must be satisfied.

Current Schedule of UGA Reviews (not yet posted)
Current Schedule of Buildable Land Studies (not yet posted)

Development Regulations

Counties and cities must adopt development regulations that carry-out their comprehensive plans and the GMA.  RCW 36.70A.040.  In terms of the general land use classifications, this means the counties must either limit or encourage development above certain densities.  Generally, development within UGAs should be at least four dwelling unit per acre while development in rural areas limited to one dwelling unit per five acres, in agricultural lands limited to one per five (sometimes ten), and in forest lands limited to one per ten.  However, the GMA does not create "bright line rules" and local governments may deviate from statewide planning norms if justified by "local circumstances." RCW 36.70A.070(5)(a); Thurston County v. W. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd.


Take Action

Care about your community? Want to save farmland and forests? Want to protect native habitat? Do the three-step!

First, learn about smart growth policies and the Washington Growth Management Act. Go to GMA 101.

Second, become involved with local organizations that advocate for good planning (see list below), write letters to the editor, and make your voice heard before county and city council meetings.

Third, if your local government does something bad (that violates the GMA), inform Futurewise, the state's leading smart growth organization, and petition your growth management hearings board to review it. You will play an important part of our state's citizen-participation approach to enforcing the GMA. See list of law firms and environmental legal programs below.

Local Smart Growth "Friends" Groups
Statewide: Futurewise
- Grays Harbor County: Friends of Grays Harbor
- San Juan County: Friends of the San Juans
- Snohomish County: Pilchuck Audubon Society,
- Clark County: Friends of Clark County, Clark County Natural Resource Defense Council
North Central Washington
- Okanogan County: Friends of Methow
Yakima Valley
- Kittitas County: Concerned Citizens of the Cle Elum Ridge, Concerned Citizens for Upper Kittitas County, Kittitas Audubon Society, RIDGE
Eastern Washington
*Note: If you don't see a group in your area, Futurewise likely already has members who live near you and regularly meet, so contact them!

Law Firms

Environmental Interest Non-Profits with Legal Programs


About Brock Howell

Professional Memberships

Washington State Bar Member, June 2008


Vermont Law School, South Royalton, VT
J.D., May 2007
- Emphasis: state and local government; land use, environmental, water, and energy law; and environmental tax policy

Washington State University, Pullman, WA
B.S., Agricultural Economics, May 2004
- Cum Laude
- Department’s Outstanding Senior
- Minor, Environmental Science
- Minor, Sustainable Development

Legal, Policy, & Government Experience

Solo Practitioner, July 2008 – Present
- Currently practicing in land use, environmental, and nonprofit law.

Futurewise, Seattle WA
Interim Legal Director, June 9 – July 21, 2008
Pro bono Representative, Oct. 2007 – June 2008
Legal Intern, June – Dec. 2006
- Managed the legal program of the state's leading smart growth advocacy organization.

- Wrote and edited briefs to state boards and all court levels regarding counties’ noncompliance with GMA.
- Orally argued before the Eastern Board, Western Board, and Thurston County Superior Court.
- Successfully negotiated a settlement with Chelan County concerning their critical areas ordinance.
- Completed Futurewise’s citizen guide to petitioning the growth boards for review of local actions.

Jay A. Goldstein Law Office, Olympia, WA
Contract Legal Assistant, Mar. 2008
- Wrote memorandum for landlord-tenant case before the Kitsap County Superior Court.

Federal District Court for Eastern Washington, Honorable Judge Shea, Richland, WA
Judicial Extern, Aug. – Nov. 2007
- Wrote memorandums and recommendations on decisions concerning Indian reservations, insurance, police brutality, drugs, international child abduction, child pornography, counterfeiting, sexual assault, and agency law.

Resources for the Future, Washington, DC
Research Intern, May – Aug. 2005
- Developed study of all fifty states’ voluntary cleanup and brownfield redevelopment programs to understand which legal structures most quickly achieve cleanup and redevelopment.

Environmental & Natural Resource Legal Clinic, Vermont Law School, South Royalton, VT
Legal Assistant, Aug. 2005
- Performed discovery of documents at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters for the clinic’s case regarding warm water discharge by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Franklin County Horticultural Pest Board, Pasco, WA
Program Developer & Orchard Inspector for Cherry Leaf-Roll Virus, May 2004 – Aug. 2004
Senator Jim Honeyford (R), Olympia, WALegislative Intern, Mar. 2003

City of Prosser, Prosser, WA
Assistant Recreation Director, May 2000 – Aug. 2000, May 2001 – Aug. 2001

Law Publications

Law Review Article, Washington’s Way II: The Burden of Enforcing Growth Management in the Crucible of the Courts and Hearings Boards, 31 Seattle U. L. Rev. 549 (2008) (co-authored with Henry McGee, Jr.).

Law Review Article, Washington's Way: Decentralized Enforcement of Growth Management Controls and the Crucial Role of NGOs, 31 Seattle U. L. Rev. 1 (2007) (authored by Henry McGee, Jr.).

Law Journal Editorial, Initiatives' Absolute Property Right World is Untenable, Vt. J. Envtl. L. (Nov. 2, 2006),

Additional Writing Experience

Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vermont Law School, South Royalton, VT
Senior Editor & Web Editor, Apr. 2005 – May 2007
- Reviewed and edited law articles, student notes, weekly news articles, and books.
- Published and maintained all content on the journal’s website,

Grandview Herald, Grandview, WAS
ports Reporter, Nov. 2007 – Feb. 2008
- Wrote articles on high school basketball and wrestling, as well as fishing and skiing reports.

No on I-933 Campaign, Seattle, WA
Ghost-Writer, June – Nov. 2006
- Ghost-wrote editorials and called voters weekly to message the “takings” initiative’s detrimental effects.

Vermont By Design: Next Steps, Vermont Council on Planning & VLS Land Use Institute, South Royalton, VT
Copy-Editor, Mar. – Jun. 2006
- Summarized discussions and conclusions at statewide workshop, copy-edited report, and published to website.

Washington State Magazine and WSU Today, Washington State University, Pullman, WA
Copy-Editor, Aug. 2000 – May 2004
- Wrote and copy-edited short stories, class notes, and obituaries about WSU alumni and faculty.


Student Leader Award, Ass’n of Student Advancement Programs (only 3 students awarded internationally), Aug. 2004.

Top Senior in Campus Involvement, WSU Big Ten Seniors Award Committee, Apr. 2004.

President’s Leadership Award, WSU President’s Office & WSU Campus Involvement, Apr. 2004.

Alpha Zeta Fraternity, WSU College of Agric., Human, & Nat. Res. Sci. (academic honor society for the College), May 2003.

Mortar Board, WSU (academic and service honor society), May 2003.

Washington State FFA Honorary Degree, Washington State FFA Association, May 2002.

American FFA Degree, National FFA Organization, Oct. 2001.

Community Involvement

Students Book Corporation, Pullman WA
Board Member & Treasurer, May 2003 – July 2004

Pullman Civic Trust, Riverwalk Project, Pullman, WA
Fundraising Committee Member, Nov. 2002 – May 2004

College Hill Association, Pullman, WA
Board Member, Sept. 2002 – May 2004

My environmental community involvement has included: Environment Colorado's campaign to elect Barack Obama, the campaign to elect Peter Goldmark for Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, the People for Puget Sound, the Mountains to Sound Greenway Association, the Progressive Future, and the Save Habitat And Diversity Of Wetlands (SHADOW) organization.

Student Leadership

(College of) Agriculture and Home Economics Student Senate, WSU
Secretary & Website Manager, Sept. 2001 – Mar. 2003

Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness Club, WSU
Faculty–Student Liaison, Website Manager, & Knowledge Bowl Team Member, Sept. 2000 – May 2004

Associated Students of WSU
Summer Director of Campus Relations, June – Aug. 2002
Implementation Director of the Student Entertainment Board, Feb. – Aug. 2003

Compton (Student) Union Building Board of Directors, WSU
Board Chair, Sept. 2002 – May 2004

Equity in Developing Countries Group, Vermont Law School
Founding Member, Jan. – Apr. 2005

Historic Livestock Pavilion Restoration Committee, WSU
Visionary, Donor Procurement, & Website Manager, Oct. 2002 – Dec. 2003

Leadership Education and Advising Program, WSU
Leadership Workshop Facilitator & Website Manager, Jan. 2002 – May 2004

Student Alumni Connection, WSU
President, Vice President, PR Director, & Website Manager, Aug. 2000 – May 2004

Student Services and Activities Fee Committee, WSU
Committee Member, Nov. 2003 – Apr. 2004



Brock Howell, Editor
Growth Management, Washington's Way

(503) 421-9936



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