Shoreline laws, rules, and cases
Private and public activities along Washington's shorelines are governed by a number of laws passed by the Washington Legislature and rules written by state agencies. This page provides links to laws, rules, and legal cases applicable to shoreline activities.
Shoreline Management Act (SMA)
The state Shoreline Management Act, put in effect in 1972, establishes a state-local partnership for managing, accessing, and protecting Washington’s shorelines. The law requires local governments to prepare locally tailored policies and regulations for managing shoreline use in their jurisdictions. These are called Shoreline Master Programs, or SMPs. We work in partnership with local governments and make sure local SMPs comply with state laws and rules.
Shoreline Master Program guidelines
Our Shoreline Master Program guidelines are the state rules that guide us and local governments in writing, adopting, and implementing local SMPs. They translate the broad policies of the state Shoreline Management Act into standards for regulating shoreline uses.
Other applicable state rules
Besides the SMP guidelines, there are number of other applicable state rules:
- Permits for oil or natural gas exploration
- Regulated streams and rivers
- Regulated lakes
- Designations of shorelands and wetlands
- Permit and enforcement procedures
Shorelines Hearings Board (SHB)
The state Shorelines Hearings Board (SHB) is the independent, quasi-judicial agency that hears appeals of local shoreline permit decisions and shoreline penalties we issue jointly with, or separately from, our local government partners. You can search SHB cases and decisions on their site.
The state Environmental & Land Use Hearings Office is an independent umbrella administrative agency made up of the SHB and two other boards that hear appeals of certain land use and environmental decisions in Washington. Each board operates independent of one another, hearing appeals and deciding cases within their separate areas of expertise and jurisdiction.
Aquatic Lands Act
- State law: Public Lands law, commonly called the Aquatic Lands Act
- State rule: Aquatic Land Management
Coastal Zone Management Act
The federal Coastal Zone Management Act is designed to address protection and development in coastal areas. We administer Washington’s Coastal Zone Management Program which meets the broader national interests of protecting, restoring, and responsibly developing the state's coastal zone. The program applies to the 15 coastal counties, extends seaward three nautical miles into the ocean, and does not apply to federal and tribal lands. Federal actions typically are reviewed for consistency with the state's program.
Floods and floodplain planning
Floodplain management includes corrective and preventive measures to reduce losses to life and property, and to protect floodplain functions. We are the lead state agency for floodplain management. In this role we provide limited emergency flood grants and technical assistance to local communities including FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Growth Management Act (GMA)
The state Growth Management Act (GMA) requires state agencies and local governments to manage Washington’s growth by designating urban growth areas, and identifying and protecting critical areas and resource lands. The law requires local governments prepare comprehensive land use plans and implement them through capital investments and development regulations.
Background: Growth Management Services
Background: Growth Management Act Laws and Rules
- State laws:
- GMA decisions and cases:
Salmon Recovery and Enhancement Acts
State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)
We're responsible for ensuring local governments and state agencies comply with the state's environmental law and related state rules. The law identifies and analyzes environmental impacts from state and local government decisions, and provides opportunities for interested parties to comment on those decisions.
Background: SEPA - Environmental review
Public Trust Doctrine
The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal principle derived from English common law limiting the public and private use of tide and other shorelands to protect the public’s right to access these public waters.
- State laws: Watershed Planning Act and Water Pollution Control Act
- State rule: Water quality standards for surface waters of the state
Wetlands are critical to the overall health of watersheds by providing flood control, groundwater recharge, and providing wildlife habitat. Wetlands cover approximately 938,000 acres in Washington. Under state and federal law, we provide guidance and technical assistance to local governments and landowners. We also form public-private partnerships to ensure wetland resources fulfill their key role in watershed health.
- State laws: Wetlands Mitigation Banking and Water Pollution Control Act
- State rules: Wetland mitigation banks and Water quality standards for surface waters of the state
Washington Attorney General's Office
State case law
- Shoreline Master Programs Handbook: Contains topic-specific case summaries and references.
- Selected Washington Supreme Court Decisions Pertaining To Land Use Law (1969-2008)
- Selected Washington Appeals Court Decisions Pertaining To Land Use Law (1973-2010)
- Background on Critical Area Regulation in Shoreline Areas: Chronology of the “Futurewise v. City of Anacortes” Decision (February 2016)
- Citizens for Rational Shoreline Planning and R. Jepson and Building Industry Association of Whatcom County vs. Whatcom County and WA Department of Ecology. (May 2010). The state Supreme Court affirmed this case in August 2011.
Legal Research Sites
- Washington State Office of the Code Reviser: Contains all state laws, rules and State Register.
- Washington Courts: Posts new state supreme and appellate court decisions for 90 days.
- Municipal Research Center (MRSC): Contains decisions of interest to local governments. Find cases by name, subject, or citation.
- Findlaw.com: Contains information about federal and multiple state court decisions, codes, laws and regulations.