All cities and counties in Washington are required to adopt critical areas regulations by the Growth Management Act (GMA) (RCW 36.70A.060). As defined by the GMA,
"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; (d) frequently flooded areas; and (e) geologically hazardous areas. [RCW 36.70A.030(5)]
The GMA was amended in 1995 to require counties and cities to include the best available science in developing policies and development regulations to protect the functions and values of critical areas (RCW 36.70A.172). All jurisdictions are required to review, evaluate, and, if necessary, revise their critical areas ordinances according to an update schedule. MRSC's page on GMA Plan/Development Regulations Updates provides additional information on the schedule and required updates.
General Critical Areas Information
Some of the handbooks and guidance materials are older; however, they provide useful general information for updating critical areas ordinances.
- Examples of Regulatory Language for Nearshore and Marine Shoreline Protection, (), prepared for the Puget Sound Action Team by GeoEngineers, January 2005
- Critical Areas Ordinance Implementation Guidebook for Small Cities, Washington State Department of Community,
Trade and Economic Development (now Department of Commerce), Growth Management Services, February 2007 - Links to guidebook, appendices, and other useful information on critical areas and best available science
- Critical Areas Assistance Handbook: Protecting Critical Areas Within the Framework of the Washington Growth Management Act(), Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (now Department of Commerce), Growth Management Services, November 2003
- Priority Habitats & Species (PHS), Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife - List of Priority Habitats & Species, including county-specific list, management recommendations, etc.
Statutes and Administrative Regulations
This section contains a selected list of court decisions about Critical Areas and the Growth Management Act.
- Olympic Stewardship Found. v. W. Wash. Growth Mgmt., ___ Wn. App. ___ (2012) - GMA
Olympic Stewardship Foundation challenged the county's vegetation regulations applicable to rivers that are subject to channel migration, arguing that the regulations violated the Growth Management Act's "best available science" requirement and the legislature's 2010 amendment to RCW 36.70A.480 invalidates the county's nonconforming use regulation for critical areas. The court held that there was no duty on a county to describe each step of the deliberative process that links the science that it considers to the adopted policy or regulation, rather, the county must address on the record the relevant sources of best available scientific information included in the decision-making. The court also found that by applying best available science and limiting the requirements to high risk critical areas, the regulations were reasonably necessary as a direct result of the proposed developments.
- Stevens County v. E. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd., 163 Wn. App. 680 (2011) - GMA/Subdivisions
The court concluded that the county subdivision code failed to protect critical areas, as required by the GMA. Significantly, the code did not address impervious surface coverage in multiple important contexts, it did not apply county-wide, and it did not mention methods for addressing storm water or impervious surface coverage.
- KAPO v. Central Puget Sound Growth Mgmnt. Hearings Board, 159 Wn. App. 270 (2011) - GMA/Shorelines Management
Following 2010 legislation (Chapter 107, Laws of 2010) that applied retroactively, the court held that the Growth Management Act was to regulate critical areas in shoreline areas until such time as Shoreline Management Act plans were updated. Retroactive application of the new legislation does not violate the separation of powers doctrine, does not infringe vested rights, does not constitute a prohibited ex post facto law, and does not render existing local plans noncompliant with the Growth Management Act.
- Kailin v. Clallam County, 152 Wn. App. 974 (2009) - Shorelines appeal
The Shorelines Hearings Board does not have subject matter jurisdiction to address a reasonable use exception from the county's critical areas ordinance where that ordinance is not a part of the county's shoreline master program.
- Stevens County v. Futurewise, 146 Wn. App. 493 (2008), review denied, 165 Wn.2d 1038 (2009) - GMA
The court held that substantial evidence supported the growth board's decision that the county's critical habitat code provisions did not comply with the GMA, because it failed to designate all critical habitats and failed to consider the best available science in designating critical habitats, as required by RCW 36.70A.172(1). The county had to use some kind of scientific methodology in a reasoned process of analysis to designate the habitats.
- Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. v. W. Washington Growth Mgmnt. Hearings Board, 161 Wn.2d 415 (2007) - Growth Management
The tribe challenged the county's critical areas ordinance alleging, among other things, that a "no harm" provision did protect critical areas, as required by RCW 36.70A.060(2). The court concluded that the "no harm" standard protected critical areas by maintaining existing conditions. The GMA does not impose a duty on local governments to enhance critical areas. The county did not need to require buffers near rivers, where previously existing buffers had long since been removed (there is no requirement to enhance). The court also concluded that while best available science needed to be considered and included in its record, it did not need to follow it. The court found the county's monitoring system inadequate, as it included no benchmarks.
- 1000 Friends of Washington v. McFarland, 159 Wn.2d 165 (2006) - GMA and the power of referenda
The GMA requirement to protect critical areas is given to the county legislative body, and thus the county's critical areas ordinance is not subject to referendum. The GMA process requires significant public involvement, which negates the need to submit GMA ordinances to the public for referenda. The legislature, recognizing the state supreme court's earlier decision (denying a referendum) chose not to alter the statutes.
- Clallam County v. W. Washington Growth Mgmnt. Hearings Board, 130 Wn. App. 127 (2005), review denied, 163 Wn.2d 1053 (2008) - Growth Management
The court concluded that preexisting agricultural uses are not exempt from all critical areas regulation. The court also held that the county was not limited to exempting only designated agricultural resource land from full critical areas regulation and that it may expand its exempt agricultural land to meet its local conditions. However, the county must balance such expanded exemption with corresponding restrictions that take into account the specific harms threatened by the expanded class of farm lands.
- HEAL v. Central Puget Sound Growth Mgmnt. Hearings Bd., 96 Wn. App. 522 (1999) - GMA
Although the city was not required to adopt critical areas policies, the growth management hearings board had jurisdiction to review such policies adopted by the city solely to determine whether the city complied with the "best available science" statutory requirement in the process of developing the policies.
Best Available Science (BAS)
Under the state GMA, local governments are required to use the best available science when reviewing and revising their policies and regulations on critical areas. The Department of Commerce, Growth Management Services, and the state Department of Ecology have provided helpful guidance on addressing the GMA's best available science requirements.
- Critical Areas and Best Available Science, Washington State Department of Commerce, Growth Management Services - Includes handbook, appendices, findings of fact, and local examples
- Citations of Recommended Sources of Best Available Science for Designating and Protecting Critical Areas (), Washington State Office of Community Development (now Department of Commerce), Growth Management Services, March 2002 - Older but still contains useful reference documents
- Best Available Science for Wetlands, Department of Ecology
- Local Government BAS Documents
- Black Diamond Sensitive Areas Ordinance Best Available Science Review and Recommendations for Code Update, Summary and Recommendations (), prepared by Parametrix, September 2008
- Bremerton Critical Areas Ordinance Best Available Science References ()
- Island County, Best Available Science for Wetlands of Island County (), by Paul R. Adamus, May 2007
- King County Best Available Science - Links to reports on Review of Science Literature and Assessment of Proposed Ordinances
- Lake Stevens Best Available Science Review and Critical Area Evaluations/Characterizations (), prepared by URS, March 2008
- San Juan County Critical Areas Ordinance - BAS Synthesis, 2011
- Thurston County Critical Areas Update, Best Available Science
Critical Areas Updates
The following includes materials related to updating critical areas ordinances from cities and counties in Washington State.
*Local example recommended by Washington State Department of Commerce, Growth Management Services
Handouts and Application Forms
A few examples of critical areas handouts and application forms are presented here.