Land Use: Property Owners
**Before you read further, I cannot emphasize enough that the information contained in each section below is but a snapshot of individual land use laws. These summaries are intended to provide general background information that may be relevant to your legal issue, but should not be relied upon as legal advice. Land use law is expansive and complex, and proper legal analysis requires consideration of all applicable laws in the context of case-specific facts and circumstances. Visit the Services & Fees page to learn about different ways we can work together to resolve your legal matter.
Chapter 36.70A RCW: The Growth Management Act
Washington’s Growth Management Act (“GMA”) was adopted in 1990 for the purpose of coordinating growth management in our state. The GMA requires local governments (counties, cities, and towns) to plan for growth consistent with fourteen enumerated goals. There are two components of the GMA that everyone should become familiar with:
1. Comprehensive Plans & Development Regulations. The GMA requires that certain jurisdictions—including King and Snohomish Counties, and all the cities within them—adopt a document called a comprehensive plan. Comprehensive plans range from fifty to several hundred pages, depending on the size of the jurisdiction. They are usually comprised of chapters, or “elements,” addressing key areas such as land use, capital facilities, housing, economic development, transportation, and the like. Each county and city must periodically review and update its comprehensive plan, a process which often takes up to two years and involves a tremendous amount of staff time and heavy public participation.
Understanding the relationship between the GMA, comprehensive plans, and local development regulations is important. The GMA is a state law that a) requires cities to have a comprehensive plan, and b) also requires that the city’s development regulations be consistent with its comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan is a high-level planning document that sets forth goals and policies to guide the city council and staff when they adopt and apply local ordinances related to growth and development (“development regulations”). If a development regulation is not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, the regulation violates the GMA—it does not “violate” the comprehensive plan, because a comprehensive plan is not a “law” that can be violated or enforced.
2. Urban Growth Areas. One of the main purposes of the GMA is to reduce sprawl. The reasons for reducing sprawl are to protect environmental lands and to promote the efficient delivery of public services and facilities. The GMA’s tool for reducing sprawl is the urban growth area. An urban growth area (“UGA”) is just what it sounds like: a designated area where urban growth should occur. The GMA requires each county to designate UGA boundaries, and prohibits urban growth outside of those boundaries.
By definition, incorporated cities and towns are already urban growth areas. Counties typically extend the boundaries of the UGA to include certain lands near or adjacent to cities. For example, see the Snohomish County UGA Map. (The King County Land Use Map also shows UGA boundaries, you just have to work around a lot more designations on the map.) Unincorporated lands that lie within UGA boundaries are designated for urban growth and, therefore, are potentially appropriate for annexation into the nearest city. Keep in mind that the land doesn’t have to be annexed in order to be developed: a property owner may be able to develop residential or commercial uses on the land in accordance with the county zoning code. But the take-away point is this: even if an area outside the city looks and feels rural, if it falls within the UGA, it is destined for eventual urban development.
Zoning Districts and Permitted Uses
Every city is divided into zoning districts to manage the distribution and compatibility of various land uses throughout the city. For example, retail businesses and restaurants may be allowed in a downtown commercial zone, which is adjacent to a residential zone for single-family homes and apartment buildings. Meanwhile, a paint manufacturer or storage warehouse might only be allowed in an industrial zone on the edge of town. Which zone your property lies in will determine what uses are permitted on the property and what building standards apply to those uses.
If you’re considering adding a deck or detached garage, or want to start a home-based business, or are evaluating a parcel to build on, you need to know what’s allowed on the property, and what specific conditions will apply. Every city code is organized differently, but generally what you want to look at is a city zoning map, permitted uses, and development standards per zoning district. The links below take you to the general zoning code titles in respective city codes. Be aware, however, that many, many additional development regulations are contained in various chapters and titles of each city code. All legal issues are specific to the facts at hand, and general information available on my website (or any other site) is not comprehensive or even necessarily applicable. Booking a ULS Consult with me is a great resource for understanding how the city zoning code affects your particular situation.
City Permits: What and Why
The city (or county) in which you live has authority under the state constitution to regulate the use of land within its boundaries. There are a lot of reasons for that authority, most of which are for the benefit of property owners and city residents. The simplest way to understand why there are so many requirements for local permits and approvals is this: the city is the keeper of the bigger picture. When you want to build a fence in your front yard, you probably aren’t thinking about underground utilities and the city’s need—and right—to access those utilities. When you want to build a sport court in your backyard, you aren’t aware that it may impact an environmentally sensitive area twenty feet past your property line. City development standards account for everything from protecting floodplains to parking fire trucks, and they do this with every element of the city in mind at all times.
Obtaining proper permits will save you from costly undoing down the road… take the guy whose house sits along a rarely used gravel alley. The guy decides to build a storage shed in the side yard, but doesn’t bother getting a city permit. Four years later, a development project is approved a quarter of mile away, and as part of the project, the developer is required to pave and widen the gravel alley to provide traffic flow for the new subdivision. Gravel Alley Guy now learns that his storage shed sits 3 feet into the city right-of-way, and he has no choice but to tear it up and move it.
Here are some common projects that typically require a permit or approval from the city:
- Tree removal
- Adding on to your house
- Building a deck
- Installing a fence
- Converting a basement or garage to a mother-in-law unit
- Adding a toilet in a detached workshop or hobby shed
- Building a playhouse or storage shed
- Starting a home-based business
- Placing signs in your front yard
- Building a retaining wall
Declarations, Easements, and Notices on Title
Most people are familiar with the concept of HOA rules and regulations that affect homes in suburban subdivisions. But even if you aren’t part of an HOA, it is possible there are restrictions on the use of your property. The county recorder’s office maintains records of declarations, easements, and other notices attached to each land parcel. A declaration or covenant sets forth binding promises regarding the property. An easement grants specific rights or benefits to a third party on, under, or over the land; typically, this applies to utility companies who run lines or pipes underneath your front lawn. Other notices on title merely create a record to advise future owners about certain circumstances affecting the property, such as the existence of critical areas, floodplains, or farmlands.
One type of declaration specific to subdivisions is the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&R’s) associated with an established homeowners’ association. Another important record applicable in subdivisions is the plat, which has engineering drawings depicting each lot in the subdivision and all easements on the property. You can search online for plats and other public records attached to or governing the use of your property. If you have a title report from the purchase of your home, that should also contain descriptions and copies of all easements, covenants, declarations, and notices attached to your property.
Condemnation and Eminent Domain
“Eminent domain” is the power granted to local governments to take private property for public use. This power is grounded in the state constitution and controlled through a statutory judicial process called “condemnation.” A city (or county) may condemn an entire parcel in order to build a fire station, library, wastewater treatment plant, or other public facility. More often, cities will condemn a portion of private property to widen roads, build a pedestrian trail, or undertake similar public works projects. Of course, this power is not unrestrained—cities are required to pay just compensation for the property they take.
Almost always, cities will attempt to acquire private property through negotiation. You’ll get a letter in the mail, or a visit from the mayor, advising you of the reason for the condemnation and the portion of land required for the public purpose. The city will make a reasonable offer based on the fair market value of the property. There are generally only two reasons not to accept an offer: either you disagree that the project is a public purpose (an argument that is highly unlikely to succeed), or you disagree that the amount offered is “just compensation” for the land. If you receive an offer or notice of condemnation, we can likely assess your options in a single New Matter Meeting, which you can book directly from the Appointments page.