Sustainable Washington

4. Washington’s Planning Framework for Climate Change

The GMA and Climate Change

For planners in Washington State, the Growth Management Act (GMA) provides an understandable, familiar, and effective framework which can be used in addressing climate change. Whether in dense urbanized cities or in rural counties, the substantive provisions of the GMA – development regulations, comprehensive plans, and broader countywide and multicounty planning policies – are tools planners can use to make a significant difference.

Planning alone cannot solve the climate change issue. It is essential that planners coordinate across jurisdictional, departmental, and business lines to meet this challenge. However, there is much that we can do within the current framework of GMA and other local planning tools to make a difference.

Organizations such as the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, ICLEI, and the National Planning Association (APA) through its Climate Change Policy have information that can help communities develop climate-friendly land use, transportation, and economic development plans, policies, and regulations. In 2015, the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association created resources to address climate change as part of the Ten Big Ideas efforts.

In short, there is no reason to wait. For each plan element – both the required and optional – this document provides suggestions to help planners get started. These suggestions can help planners initiate a wholesale rethinking of plans and regulations, not simply “business as usual” or minor amendments.

As a start, planners must use their ingenuity, inventiveness, and leadership abilities to ensure that the next round of comprehensive plan updates address climate change.

Washington’s Legislative Framework for Climate Change

While the federal government has been slow in responding to the challenge of global climate change, many state governments – including Washington – have launched significant programs aimed at mitigating GHG emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. Actions taken by the Governor and the Legislature both empower and constrain the options available to local governments.

Following is a chronological listing of the Executive Orders and state legislation that have incrementally formed the state’s policy framework and that affect planners’ ability to address climate change.


  • HB 1397 [C 295 L 05] – Adopts California’s clean vehicle emission standards.
  • SB 5509 [C 12 L 05] – Requires most state buildings to be designed and constructed to meet high-performance green building standards.
  • HB 1062 [C 298 L 05] – Extends Energy Star standards for appliances.
  • SB 5101 [C 300 L 05] – Incentives to support renewable energy from solar, wind, or aerobic digester operators. Cost recovery from utilities.
  • SB 5111 [C 301 L 05] – Tax incentives for solar energy businesses.


  • SB 6508 [C 338 L 06] – Renewable fuel standards. Total gasoline sold must include 2% ethanol; total diesel must include 2% biodiesel; state agency fuels must be 20% biodiesel by 2009.
  • SB 2939 [C 171 L 06] – State bio-energy industry policies.
  • SB 1010 [C 195 L 06] – Electric utility planning. Requires all large utilities in the state to develop integrated resource plans, including assessments of available conservation and renewable resources.
  • HB 2352 [C 201 L 06] – Expands net metering program. Allows systems up to 100 kW and up to 0.25% of a utility’s 1996 peak demand, increasing to 0.5% in 2014.
  • Initiative 937 – Requires large utilities to obtain 3% of electricity from new renewable resources by 2012, increasing to 9% by 2016 and 15% by 2020, and identification of cost-effective conservation approaches and targets.


  • Executive Order 07-02 and ESSB 6001 [C 307 L 07]. Codifies Governor’s Climate Change Initiative, which sets state GHG emission reduction goals and strict GHG emissions standards for new thermal electric generating facilities.
  • HB 1929 [C 349 L 07] – Mitigation of GHG Emissions from municipal utilities. Authorizes municipal utilities to develop GHG emission reduction plans and pass costs on to ratepayers.
  • HB 1303 [C 348 L 07] – Promotion of clean fuels and clean energy. Moves Energy Freedom Program from WSDA to Washington State Department of Commerce, establishes policies for bio-fuels infrastructure, plug-in hybrids, vehicle fleet electrification, directs creation of UW Climate Impacts report, established 100% bio-fuels target for state agency vehicles by 2015.


The 2008 legislative session arguably marks the high point to date in establishing statewide policies for GHG reductions. Although some of the more aggressive proposals did not survive, two important pieces of legislation related to climate change passed.

  • HB 2815 [C 14 L 08] – Providing a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the Washington economy. This is the most far-reaching climate change legislation passed. It established the GHG targets already embodied in SB 6001 as mandatory limits, including: 2020 – reduce emissions to 1990 levels; 2035 – reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels; and 2050 – reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels, or 70% below the expected “business as usual” for that year.

    HB 2815 also directed the state to develop policy recommendations, monitoring and reporting systems for large emitters, and coordination with the Western Climate Initiative to develop a regional cap-and-trade system.

    Finally, HB 2815 established benchmarks for reducing per capita vehicle miles of travel: 18% by 2020; 30% by 2035; and 50% by 2050.
    • SB 6580 [C 289 L 08] – Addressing the impacts of climate change through the Growth Management Act. As introduced, this bill would have established a fourteenth goal to GMA, to reduce climate change impacts by lessening emissions of greenhouse gases to the levels established in SB 6001 and HB 2815, and also would have added a required climate element for larger cities and counties.

      SB 6580, as passed, did require Washington State Department of Commerce to review possible changes to the GMA to meet the GHG emissions reductions goals set forth in HB 2815 and to report these recommendations to the legislature by December 1, 2008. APA participated in this effort as part of the Land Use and Climate Change Committee (LUCC).


The Governor’s Climate Initiative and the legislatively mandated study committees brought forth a wide variety of legislative proposals to implement additional changes in the state’s GHG policies. With legislators focused on the economic downturn, few of the proposed changes were passed.

Below are some changes that directly influence planning for climate change.

  • SB 5560 [C 519 L 09] –State agency climate leadership. Requires all state agencies to meet statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction limits. Requires state agencies, when distributing capital funds, to consider whether the entity receiving the funds has adopted policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; if the project is consistent with the state’s limits on greenhouse gas emissions and goals to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 2050; and applicable federal emission reduction standards.
  • HB 1244 [C 564 L 09] – State operating budget and climate. Subsection 128 (13) requires Washington State Department of Commerce by June 30, 2011, to request information from local jurisdictions describing what they have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, in terms of plans that help achieve the greenhouse gas emission reductions established in RCW 70.235.020. This information request applies to jurisdictions required to update plans by December 2011.

In addition to bills directly relating to climate change, a few other bills have some potential benefit for climate-friendly planning:

Some bills that did not pass in the 2009 Session:
Some bills that did not pass in the 2009 session may indicate future issues that will be revisited:

HB 1490 – Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through land use and transportation requirements. Included transit-oriented development requirements and other provisions from Land Use and Climate Change Committee.

SB 5735 – Reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Authorized the creation of a regional cap-and-trade program through the Western Climate Initiative.

SB 5138 – Creating an integrated climate change response strategy. Directed Ecology to establish a Climate Change Impacts Coordinating team to continue the development of an integrated state policy, continuing the work of the Climate Action Team.

  • SB 5649 [C 379 L 09] – Energy Efficiency in Buildings. This bill expands the authority of various government entities, providing additional flexibility in the leveraging of federal grants.
  • SB 5854 [C 423 L 09] – Energy efficiency codes. The State Building Code Council must adopt state energy codes that require homes and buildings constructed from 2013 through 2031 to incrementally move towards a 70 percent reduction in energy use by 2031.This bill requires stronger building codes, better analysis of energy consumption by utilities, energy performance standards for public facilities, and disclosure of information to prospective buyers, lessees, or lenders.
  • HB 1967 [C 342 L 09] – Prohibiting expansion of UGAs into a 100-year floodplain. Restricts a county or city from expanding an urban growth area into a 100-year floodplain of a river (in Western Washington) with an annual flow of 1,000 or more cubic feet per second, with certain exceptions.
  • HB 1172 [C 474 L 09] – Implementing a regional transfer of development rights program. Requires Washington State Department of Commerce to establish program in central Puget Sound to foster inter-jurisdictional transfers of rights. The bill sets forth criteria that counties must use for designation of sending areas (agricultural or forest land of long-term commercial significance).
  • HB 1481 [C 459 L 09] – Electric vehicles. Directs the state to install charging outlets in areas, such as rest stops. Of interest to planners is section 9, which requires cities and counties to allow electric vehicle infrastructure as a use in all areas except those zoned residential, resource use or critical areas..
  • SB 5921 [C 318 L 09] – Creating a clean energy leadership initiative. Directs the state to convene a Clean Energy Leadership Council to prepare a strategy for growing the clean energy technology sector by December 2010. This strategy is to be considered in the distribution of federal/state energy program funding.

Additionally, the Governor issued Executive Order 09-05. Under this order:

Ecology is directed to:

  • Continue participation in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and to work to design a national program that reflects enumerated Washington priorities.
  • Begin to develop strategies to help the state’s largest GHG emitters comply with the 2020 emissions reduction target (1990 levels by 2020).
  • Develop emissions benchmarks for industries likely to be covered by a federal tax or cap-and-trade program.
  • Work with the TransAlta to apply GHG reduction standards to the Centralia coal-powered electric plant by 2025.
  • Develop recommendations for forestry offset protocols.
  • Assess whether any of the various low-carbon fuel standards would meet the states GHG reduction goals and provide a recommendation by July 1, 2010.
  • Transportation is directed to:
  • Estimate current and future VMT and evaluate potential changes to VMT goals, including the impact of low- and no-emission vehicles.
  • Work with MPOs to develop regional transportation plans that will reduce GHG emissions and achieve statutory benchmarks to reduce VMTs.

In addition, Executive Order 09-05 states:

  • The Governor’s Office will continue to pursue electrification of a West Coast highway corridor.
  • Ecology shall investigate impacts of potential sea level rise and develop recommendations with AWC and WSAC.
  • Ecology and Health, in consultation with other affected agencies, shall address anticipated changes in water resources due to climate change impacts.

Changes Needed to the GMA

While comprehensive planning under the GMA has been in place in Washington since 1990, the knowledge base regarding planning for the challenge of climate change has improved significantly in the intervening years. APA Washington recognizes that more robust substantive provisions of the GMA would help planners meet this challenge.

Beginning in 2007, APA Washington began to take a more proactive legislative approach to climate change: in 2007, it brought forward legislation to add climate change to the GMA goals, and in 2008 it participated in the state's Land Use and Climate Change Committee.

In January 2009, APA Washington released a report entitled Toward a Smart Growth Strategy for Washington. This report offered some general guidelines and specific recommendations for statutory changes to the GMA to help it address climate change, infrastructure funding, Puget Sound cleanup, and more. Below are some of the most relevant recommendations that address climate change.

Add climate change to the goals of GMA – The chapter continues to support amending the GMA planning goals to include climate change either as a standalone goal or as part of the existing environment goal.

  • Create a statewide GMA plan – In the Livable Washington 2005 Update, the chapter called on the state to develop a statewide plan. This comprehensive plan would address the environment, rural lands, governance, infrastructure funding, economic development, and more. The chapter continues to believe that a comprehensive statewide plan is needed, rather than the piecemeal, single-issue efforts seen over the past few years.
  • Target state infrastructure funds (and local infrastructure assistance funds) on projects that reduce climate change emissions – HB 5560, described above, is a step in this direction. The chapter encourages the strong implementation of this legislation.
  • Require that reductions in vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions be addressed regionally – The chapter continues to believe that this is a regional issue that should be address in regional transportation plans. This would be accomplished by amending RCW 47.80.
  • Require Special Purpose Districts to create plans consistent with local and regional GMA plans – It has been the long-standing position of the chapter that these special districts should be brought under the planning requirements of the Act. The chapter continues to believe this should be accomplished by amending RCW 36.70A.040 and .280.
  • Provide financial resources and retain Washington State Department of Commerce technical assistance for local climate change planning – The state budget allocation for Washington State Department of Commerce's technical assistance program should support a strong climate-change program.

Beyond those items promoted by APA Washington, a number of suggestions were recommended in 2008 by the state's Land Use and Climate Change Committee, but these did not move forward. Some of the promising suggestions that relate to planning under the GMA are as follows:

  • Revise existing countywide planning policy requirements to require policies related to reducing climate change – Similar to the comments earlier, the chapter believes countywide planning policies are a good "regional" structure through which jurisdictions can collaboratively address climate change.
  • Require consistency between comprehensive plans and regional plans – More tightly connecting local and regional plans, especially for regional issues such as climate change, holds real potential for coordinated action.
  • Encourage greater use of upfront programmatic SEPA –Cities that can attract new development, are more likely to achieve the land use patterns necessary to address climate change. State funds and technical assistance could be the needed incentives to make these programmatic approaches more usable.

Now is the Time to Start

The GMA is among the nation's most forward-thinking, planning-enabling legislation. GMA's broad reach and spectrum of issues addressed make it central to planners' responses to the challenge of climate change.

Each element of the local and regional GMA plans, as well as the implementing actions and development regulations, should be viewed as a tool to address climate change. Only through this type of comprehensive and holistic thinking will planning make a significant impact on the climate change challenge.

With the schedule established for the next round of comprehensive plan updates, now is the time to start. Sustainable Washington calls for the next round of comprehensive plans to focus on climate change.

Changes Beyond GMA: Sustainability

While the Growth Management Act provides a central framework for planning in Washington State, planning for climate change and the broader issues of sustainability will ultimately require expanding the focus of GMA– especially to embrace the interaction and interdependence of economic, environmental, and social factors in long-term planning.

Local governments are well aware of the imperative to address sustainability, even if not recognized by that name. For example, all levels of government – state regional, and local – are currently re-examining their programs and funding priorities given the realities of increased demand and the increased costs of providing services arrayed against imposed funding caps and variable – if not declining – revenue streams. While GMA provides a useful and essential vehicle to approach climate change and the broader issues of sustainability, more is needed. Planning for the challenge of climate change must go beyond GMA’s comprehensive planning structure to include and integrate planning under other mandates, such as the Shoreline Management Act, SEPA, critical areas, transportation and capital infrastructure planning, and other requirements.

At the state level, planning regulations in each of these areas should be updated to acknowledge climate change and sustainability. However, this is not enough. For Washington State, what is needed is nothing short of an overhaul of the state planning and regulatory framework. Without this comprehensive reworking of the various planning, economic and environmental tools into a cohesive – and efficient – whole, it is likely that what we will see is a steady expansion of mandates, increase in complexity, and confusion of purpose. Rather than a layering of regulation, what is need is a simpler, cohesive, and more sustainable approach.

Planners, and the communities we serve, must look far beyond the 20-year horizon of local plans adopted under GMA.


1 References in brackets are to chapter and laws of Washington, as enacted. Specific Bill information can be found online via the Washington State Legislature website at

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