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.

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