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Shoreline Management Act

The Shoreline Management Act (SMA) requires all counties and most towns and cities with shorelines to develop and implement Shoreline Master Programs. The law also defines our role in reviewing and approving local programs. The SMA was passed by the Washington Legislature in 1971 and adopted by voters in 1972. Its overarching goal is "to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines."

Where does the SMA apply?

Shorelines of the state

The SMA applies to all 39 Washington counties and about 250 towns and cities with stream, river, lake or marine shorelines. These shorelines include:

  • All marine waters
  • Streams and rivers with greater than 20 cubic feet per second mean annual flow
  • Lakes 20 acres or larger
  • Upland areas called shorelands that extend 200 feet landward from the edge of these waters
  • Biological wetlands and river deltas connected to these water bodies
  • Some or all of the 100-year floodplain, including all wetlands

Shorelines of statewide significance

The SMA states that the interests of all the people "shall be paramount in the management of shorelines of statewide significance." These special shorelines include:

  • Pacific Coast, Hood Canal and certain Puget Sound shorelines
  • All of  Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca
  • Lakes or reservoirs covering at least 1,000 surface acres
  • Larger rivers: Those flowing 1,000 cubic feet per second or more in Western Washington and 200 cubic feet per second and greater in Eastern Washington
  • Wetlands associated with all the above

SMA policies

There are three basic SMA policy areas: Shoreline use, environmental protection, and public access.

Shoreline use

The SMA establishes the concept of preferred shoreline uses. These uses are consistent with controlling pollution, preventing damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of Washington's shorelines. Preferred uses include:

  • Single-family residences
  • Ports
  • Shoreline recreational uses
  • Water-dependent industrial and commercial developments
  • Other developments providing public access opportunities

As much as possible, shorelines should be reserved for "water-oriented" uses, including those that are "water-dependent," "water-related," and for "water-enjoyment."

Preferred uses for shorelines of statewide significance are designed to:

  • Recognize and protect statewide over local interests
  • Preserve the natural character of the shoreline
  • Result in long-term rather than short-term benefits
  • Protect shoreline resources and environment
  • Increase public access to publicly-owned shoreline areas
  • Expand recreational shoreline opportunities for the public

Environmental protection

The SMA is intended to protect shoreline natural resources including the land, vegetation, wildlife, and aquatic habitats against adverse environmental effects. All allowed uses are required to offset adverse environmental impacts as much as possible and preserve the natural character and aesthetics of the shoreline.

Public access

Shoreline Master Programs must include a public access element, including provisions for public access to publicly-owned areas. They are to include an element for preserving and enlarging recreational opportunities.

The SMA also implements the common law Public Trust Doctrine. This doctrine conveys that the waters of the state are a public resource for the purposes of navigation, conducting commerce, fishing, recreation, and similar uses. In addition, the Public Trust Doctrine is not invalidated by private ownership of the underlying land. The doctrine limits public and private use of tidelands and other shorelands to protect the public's right to access waters of the state.

Constitutional authority and limitations

The state and U.S. constitutions provide us the authority to conduct activities necessary to uphold the SMA and significant limitations on that authority. This basic authority comes from the police power provision allowing state and local governments to adopt and enforce laws to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare. Limitations are set by state and federal constitutional due process and takings provisions:

Due process limitations

Government activities that constrain private options have to provide an opportunity for input by affected private parties. To ensure a Shoreline Master Program is legally defensible, we work in partnership with local governments to make sure due process is followed by seeking public input when:

  • Developing or changing Shoreline Master Programs
  • Deciding on certain individual shoreline permits
  • Changing our rules guiding Shoreline Master Programs

Compensation for taking private property

Government is constrained from taking private property without due process and just compensation. The takings issue is perhaps the most debated issue in land-use law. Its meaning is clear in cases of condemnation or other acquisition for public use — government must pay the fair market value.

It’s reasonably clear that most common forms of regulations limiting property use does not require compensation, even where a property's value has been significantly diminished. This holds as long as the regulation is reasonably related to protecting legitimate public interests. However, courts have indicated there is a point where use limitations on an individual piece of property require compensation.

The SMA addresses the takings issue by identifying the public purposes of the law and requiring appropriate flexibility in its implementation. Individual Shoreline Master Programs need to be drafted with the takings issue in mind and every permit decision must consider the takings issue.