About the GMA

The Growth Management Act (GMA) provides for effective city and county planning for a better future. The GMA envisions that citizens and elected officials will work together, along with neighboring local governments and state agencies, to prepare a shared vision for the future, plan together for that future, and then work together to make that plan a reality.

Twenty-nine counties and the cities in those counties currently plan under the Growth Management Act. The GMA counties are: Benton County, Chelan County, Clallam County, Clark County, Columbia County, Douglas County, Ferry County, Franklin County, Garfield County, Grant County, Island County, Jefferson County, King County, Kitsap County, Kittitas County, Lewis County, Mason County, Pacific County, Pend Oreille County, Pierce County, San Juan County, Skagit County, Snohomish County, Spokane County, Stevens County, Thurston County, Walla Walla County, Whatcom County, and Yakima County.

The GMA has resulted in many successes. Local governments now have comprehensive plans and standards to protect wetlands, streams, farms, and forests. Local governments have increased public involvement in planning. Local governments now plan for housing for all income groups. Local governments plan for how the public facilities needed to accommodate growth will be funded and built as they are needed. In the 1990s, Washington grew by over a million people for the first time. While this growth has resulted in challenges, the GMA helped cities and counties accommodate this growth.

Key Growth Management Act Provisions

The key requirements of the GMA are summarized below. They are listed in the steps required by the GMA. Following each requirement is a reference to the GMA section that contains that requirement. RCW means Revised Code of Washington, which is a compendium of state laws that contains the GMA along with the other state laws of general applicability. The Growth Management Act is available from the Washington State Office of the Code Reviser.

Step 1: Identify and Protect Critical Areas and Resource Lands

  • All cities and counties in Washington State must designate critical areas and adopt development regulations to protect them. Critical areas include the following areas and ecosystems: (a) wetlands; (b) areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water; (c) fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas (including rivers, streams, lakes, and salt water shorelines); (d) frequently flooded areas; and (e) geologically hazardous areas. RCW 36.70A.030(5), RCW 36.70A.040(3)(b), 36.70A.060(2), and RCW 36.70A.170. Best available science shall be used to designate and manage critical areas. RCW 36.70A.172.
  • Counties and cities fully planning under the GMA must adopt development regulations to assure the conservation of designated agricultural lands, forestlands, and mineral resource lands. RCW 36.70A.040(3)(b) and RCW 36.70A.060(1).

Step 2: Designate County-wide Planning Policies and Urban Growth Areas (for counties and cities fully planning under the GMA)

  • GMA Vision. "The regional physical form required by the [GMA] is a compact urban landscape, well designed and well furnished with amenities, encompassed by natural resource lands and a rural landscape." Bremerton et al. v. Kitsap County, CPSGMHB Case No.: 95-3-0039c Final Decision and Order 31 (October 6, 1995).
  • The county legislative authority shall adopt county-wide planning policies to coordinate planning within the county and with adjacent cities and counties that share common issues. RCW 36.70A.040(3)(a) and RCW 36.70A.210. The policies shall include a review and evaluation program. RCW 36.70A.215.
  • The county legislative authority shall designate urban growth areas sufficient to accommodate a planned population that is within the Office of Financial Management's 20-year population projection range for the county. RCW 36.70A.110(1). Final UGAs must be included in the county comprehensive plan. RCW 36.70A.110(6).

Step 3: Prepare and Adopt Comprehensive Plans (for counties and cities fully planning under the GMA)

  • A comprehensive plan is a generalized coordinated land use policy statement adopted by a City or County Council or Commission under the GMA. RCW 36.70A.030(4) Comprehensive Plans must comply with the goals and requirements of the GMA, including requirements for the elements that must be included and the process used to prepare and adopt comprehensive plans.
  • Counties and cities must provide early and continuous public involvement in planning under the GMA. RCW 36.70A.140.
  • Counties and cities must adopt an internally consistent comprehensive plan that includes maps, text, standards and the following elements: land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, rural (for counties only), and transportation. RCW 36.70A.070. Other elements, such as economic development and parks and recreation, can also be adopted as part of the comprehensive plan as can subarea plans or neighborhood plans. RCW 36.70A.080.
  • The comprehensive plan must include a process for identifying and siting essential public facilities. RCW 36.70A.200. Essential public facilities are facilities that are typically difficult to site but are needed to serve our communities, such as airports, state education facilities, state and local correctional facilities, state or regional transportation facilities, solid waste handling facilities, and in-patient facilities.
  • Cities and counties are required to identify lands useful for public purposes and open space corridors in their comprehensive plans. RCW 36.70A.150 and RCW 36.70A.160.
  • Comprehensive plans must be coordinated with the comprehensive plans of neighboring cities and counties. RCW 36.70A.100.
  • State agencies must be given a 60-day notice before the adoption of a comprehensive plan, development regulation, or amendment. RCW 36.70A.106(1).
  • State agencies must comply Growth Management Act comprehensive plans and development regulations. RCW 36.70A.103.

Step 4: Adopt Development Regulations to Carry Out the Comprehensive Plan & Other Steps to Implement the Plan (for counties and cities fully planning under the GMA)

  • Cities and counties must adopt development regulations that are consistent with and implement the comprehensive plan. RCW 36.70A.040(3) and (4).
  • Development regulations are controls placed on development or land use activities by a county or city, including but not limited to, zoning ordinances, critical areas ordinances, shoreline master programs, official controls, planned unit development ordinances, subdivision ordinances, and binding site plan ordinances together with any amendments. There is a trend to unified development regulations that combine these types of requirements into an integrated whole. A development regulation does not include a decision to approve a project permit application, as defined in RCW 36.70B.020, even though the decision may be expressed in a resolution or ordinance of the legislative body of the county or city. RCW 36.70A.030(7).
  • After adoption of the comprehensive plan, cities and counties must adopt and enforce a concurrency ordinance that prohibits development approval if the development would cause the level of service on a locally owned transportation facility or, for counties that consist entirely of islands, a highway of statewide significance to decline below the standards adopted in the transportation element of the comprehensive plan, unless transportation improvements or strategies to accommodate the impacts of development are made concurrent with the development. RCW 36.70A.070(6)(a)(iii)(C) and RCW 36.70A.070(6)(b).
  • After adopting a comprehensive plan, cities and counties must review their critical areas regulations to determine if they are consistent with the adopted comprehensive plan and development regulations. If they are not consistent, they must be updated to make them consistent. RCW 36.70A.060(3).
  • City and county activities and capital budgeting decisions shall conform to the comprehensive plan. RCW 36.70A.120.
  • Members of the public or organizations that participate in the review of comprehensive plans, development regulations, or amendments may appeal their adoption to one of three regional Growth Management Hearings Boards. RCW 36.70A.250 through RCW 36.70A.340.

Step 5: Evaluate and Update the Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations (for counties and cities fully planning under the GMA)

  • Counties fully planning under the GMA and the cities in those counties must review and evaluate their comprehensive plans and development regulations for effectiveness on an ongoing basis. RCW 36.70A.130.
  • Counties fully planning under the GMA and the cities in those counties must review their comprehensive plans and development regulations every five years and, if needed, update them so the plans and development regulations comply with the GMA. RCW 36.70A.130. Counties and cities not fully planning under the GMA must review and update their critical areas designations, policies, and regulations and their natural resource land designations every seven years. RCW 36.70A.130(1).
  • Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston counties are required to prepare a buildable lands analysis every five years that determines whether these counties are achieving their planned densities, if sufficient buildable lands is available to meet the population projections and employment needs for the county, and whether measures need to be taken to accommodate the projected growth. RCW 36.70A.215.