Special Edition: Planners' Newsletter

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May 31, 2023

Governor Jay Inslee and others celebrating House Bill 1181's passage into law.

Photo courtesy of Washington State Legislative Support Services.

Planners’ Newsletter on legislative changes in 2023

Washington State Legislature completes historic year of Growth Management Act reforms

This session resulted in the most significant reforms to the Growth Management Act (GMA) in more than two decades. The Legislature and the Governor went big on issues like housing and climate change, while still maintaining a ready awareness of local needs. These successes took strong leadership, a broad coalition and bipartisan cooperation. Adding important requirements to larger urban areas, there was a noticeable decrease in the workload for smaller rural cities. This continues a trend over the past few sessions that apply GMA requirements differently across large and small jurisdictions. Here are the major highlights:

Reforms from the Collaborative Roadmap Task Force

Many of these changes came from an extensive review of the GMA and its needs over the last several years. The Collaborative Roadmap Task Force concluded its work submitting their final report (PDF) to the Legislature as the 2023 session kicked off. The Task Force made 13 recommendations, 10 of which were legislative changes. Of those 10 recommendations, eight of them resulted in the introduction of a bill. Ultimately, six Task Force recommendations were passed into law. From aligning the Shoreline Master Program review schedule more completely with the GMA to making it easier on smaller cities to adopt critical area protections, each bill addressed an issue identified by the Collaborative Roadmap process.

When combined with changes from the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions, the project as a whole represents the most successful GMA reform effort since the Land Use Study Commission in the mid-1990s. The Collaborative Roadmap process and consultants received an “Excellence in Planning” award this year from the Planning Association of Washington and the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association for all of the hard work that went into making this incredible change effort happen. Here are the Collaborative Roadmap bills that passed this session:

  • HB 1544 - Moves the update cycle for the Shoreline Master Program to a ten-year cycle and synchronizes the updates with the update cycle in the GMA.
  • SB 5374 - Allows cities below 25,000 population to adopt the county critical areas ordinance by reference and avoid the duty to conduct a separate periodic update.
  • SB 5457 - Allows cities and towns below 500 population to conduct a significantly reduced periodic update.
  • SB 5290 - Makes a number of changes to the local project review act designed to increase the timeliness and predictability of local project review. It also creates a number of programs to assist local governments in obtaining the capacity needed for timely permit processing. This bill combined a number of different bills during session and implements two of the Roadmap recommendations.
  • HB 1425 - Revives the annexation tax credit program to encourage annexation of remaining portions of unincorporated urban growth areas.

Major changes to housing law

The Legislature passed multiple housing bills, all designed to increase the range of allowable housing types within cities along with historic housing appropriations. Read together, all of these bills require cities to allow a broader variety of housing types in residential areas. They also require cities to transition from discretionary design review to a more predictable administrative process. The Legislature also passed historic legislation aimed at undoing years of racial discrimination in housing.

In his remarks at the signing of several landmark housing bills, Gov. Inslee said, “This is one of the most important and impactful pieces of housing legislation that the state has passed in recent years.”

Recognizing the impacts and the need, these changes couple with the largest increase in funding for housing programs in state history. With the newly signed budget, the next fiscal biennium provides $1 billion in funding to fight homelessness and support housing affordability. Here are the housing bills that passed:

  • HB 1110 - Requires cities to: allow at least six of nine middle housing types in predominantly single-family zones; allow only administrative design review of objective standards; require between two and six middle housing units on each lot depending on city and county population thresholds; provide process and criteria for extensions of implementation; and the bill directs Commerce to provide technical assistance including rulemaking and certification authority. It also amends RCW 43.21C to exempt certain actions from environmental review.
  • HB 1337 - Requires that counties and cities allow two accessory dwelling units (ADU) on every lot in predominantly single-family zones within urban growth areas. It also limits parking requirements based on distance from transit and lot size and removes barriers to separate sale and ownership of ADUs.
  • HB 1293 - Requires counties and cities to apply only clear and objective design review standards to the exterior of new development. It clarifies project review provisions and encourages expedited review of project permit applications that include dwelling units that are affordable to low and moderate income households.
  • HB 1042 - Amends RCW 36.70B to allow conversion of existing commercial buildings to residential uses and offer increases in density.


New climate change requirements 

Unlike the many housing bills, House Bill 1181 makes a multitude of changes to the GMA, requiring communities to address climate change directly in their planning programs. Although every jurisdiction in the state must address climate change in some way, the requirements apply differently in larger metropolitan counties. All fully planning cities and counties must adopt a climate change element that identifies and helps manage the impacts of climate change on the community, such as increased flooding, urban heat island effects or wildfires. Larger cities in metropolitan counties must also identify and implement measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This planning will need to be integrated with planning for transportation, land use, parks and recreation, utilities and capital facilities.

Recognizing the considerable effort this will take for jurisdictions across the state, Commerce is developing planning guidance for local governments of all sizes and expertise. We are also creating a list of measures local governments can pick from when identifying how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Commerce will finalize a model climate resilience element in June 2023 to support local adoption. In addition to the guidance, Commerce received significant grant funding for local governments to create these new elements.

The implementation timeline for the bill is complicated; it recognizes that periodic updates are already underway for many cities and counties across the state. Jurisdictions with a 2024 comprehensive planning due date will not have to complete their climate elements until 2029. Jurisdictions with a 2025 due date are expected to include climate elements in their current comprehensive plans. All jurisdictions have flexibility on the implementation deadline in order to use the FEMA hazard mitigation planning process to meet their climate resilience sub-element requirements.

  • HB 1181 - Makes multiple changes to the GMA, requiring climate change and targeted changes associated with environmental justice.

Environmental Justice in planning

For the first time, House Bill 1181 also requires consideration of Environmental Justice in GMA planning. In particular, the climate change and transportation elements must prioritize actions to benefit vulnerable populations. It also directs Commerce to create a grant program to increase the capacity of community-based organizations in overburdened communities to enhance their participation in the climate planning process.

Statewide climate resilience from Ecology

In addition to local government requirements under HB 1181, House Bill 1170 requires Ecology to update and publish a statewide climate resilience strategy by September 30, 2024. To produce the updated strategy, Ecology must coordinate with agencies, including Commerce, and engage with tribes, local governments, vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.


Ecology focused changes

SEPA Exemption

The Washington State Department of Ecology had several items this session that strengthened their role in planning and their partnership with Commerce. This starts with one of the most significant exemptions ever to make it to the SEPA categorical exemption list. Senate Bill 5412 creates a new SEPA categorical exemption for residential development projects within incorporated UGAs and middle housing projects within unincorporated UGAs if the proposed development is consistent with local development regulations.

The new categorical exemption requires local governments to first prepare environmental analysis that documents how environmental analysis, protection, and mitigation for impacts have been adequately addressed. The local government must also document its consultation with the Washington State Department of Transportation regarding certain transportation impacts. Before finalizing the environmental analysis, the local government must provide at least 60 days public notice with the exemption effective 30 days following adoptive action.

  • SB 5412 - SEPA Categorical exemption for residential development and middle housing.

Shoreline Management Act updates

Another update associated with the Shoreline Management Act (SMA), Senate Bill 1758 clarifies the permit process for maintenance of fish hatcheries under the SMA. Maintenance of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, tribes, cities, and public utility districts hatcheries do not need review under the SMA if the activity takes place within the existing footprint of a facility, and activities within existing water intake and outflow sites take place during times when fish presence is minimized.

Maintenance projects must not adversely affect public access or shoreline ecological functions. The bill requires hatchery operators to provide notice to Ecology and local governments before undertaking maintenance activities, to ensure activities do not require permits.

  • SB 1758 – Clarifies permit procedures for fish hatcheries under the SMA.

Ecology will be performing a survey of shorelines in the Puget Sound. Senate Bill 5104 directs Ecology to conduct a baseline survey of Puget Sound marine shorelines that documents and maps existing shoreline conditions, structures, and structure conditions by July 2025. The bill requires Ecology to gather geo-referenced oblique images and on-water imagery to create the survey. Ecology must make the images available to the public by December 31, 2024. Ecology must update both the imagery and the surveys on a regular two-year cycle.

The oblique angle and high resolution of the photos allow coastal managers to identify relatively small changes to the shoreline, such as tree removal, bulkhead construction, or modifications to piers and docks. The imagery and survey will be used for land-use planning, permitting and compliance, assessing shoreline change over time, restoration planning and evaluating regulatory effectiveness.

  • SB 5104 – Directs a baseline survey of Puget Sound shorelines.

Clean energy mitigation and siting

The Legislature adopted two bills associated with the development and use of renewable energy facilities in our state. House Bill 1173 requires utility-scale wind energy facilities to install light mitigation systems that turn off aviation hazard lights when there are no planes nearby. Facilities must use technologies approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The bill applies to all new facilities, and existing facilities must apply to the FAA for installation of light mitigation systems by January 1, 2028, or upon the completion of repowering, whichever is earlier. Both new and existing facilities have two years to install systems after getting FAA approval.

The bill authorizes Ecology to enforce the bill requirements, and any penalties would be subject to appeals to the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

  • HB 1173 – Deals with light pollution on utility-scale wind energy facilities.

House Bill 1216 supports timely and effective siting and permitting for new clean energy projects while protecting the environment, overburdened communities, and tribal rights and cultural resources. The bill establishes an Interagency Clean Energy Siting Coordinating Council, co-led by Ecology and Commerce, to consider and implement actions to improve permitting of clean energy projects and provide an annual legislative report with recommendations.

It establishes an optional coordinated clean energy permitting process led by Ecology for clean energy projects that do not use the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) process. The process includes timelines and requirements for environmental review and local and state permitting. Applicants would provide funds to conduct this process. The process must include tribal consultation and engagement with overburdened communities.

HB 1216 also directs Ecology to develop three programmatic environmental impact statements (EIS) for solar, onshore wind, and green hydrogen facilities by June 30, 2025. The evaluation will be statewide, consider probable significant environmental impacts, and will develop potential mitigation options. It also amends SEPA to include notifying an applicant if there are potential significant impacts from a project that would require an EIS and requires an EIS for clean energy projects be completed within 24 months.

  • HB 1216 – Clean energy project siting.


Next steps

New legislation is only one way state agencies implement policy. Budget provisos and funding cycles often create requirements for agencies to implement. Commerce and other state agencies will be working feverishly over the next several months to lay the foundations for the new guidance, funding and administrative rules this broad legislative mandate has created. Funding cycles for a variety of programs will kick-off very quickly. For example:

  • Ecology has several workshops coming up at the beginning of June on the Shoreline Planning Competitive Grant Program for the 2023-2025 biennium. The application process starts in early July. For questions, contact Rebecca Rothwell, rothwell@ecy.wa.gov or 360-810-0025.
  • Commerce funding for Periodic Update grants created in the 2022 session are continued in the 2023-25 budget period. We are preparing for the next series of these formula grants for 2024 jurisdictions, pursuing the second half of their grants and the 2025 jurisdictions eligible for their two-year update grant cycle.

Stay tuned for updates as we continue to strengthen communities and support our state as a great place to live and work.