Washington’s vested rights doctrine guarantees that a land development proposal will be processed under the laws and regulations in effect at the time a complete permit application is filed.  In Town of Woodway v. Snohomish County, the Washington Supreme Court confirmed that the vested rights doctrine applies even where land use plans and development regulations are later found to be invalid.

Facts and Background

In 2006, BSRE Point Wells LP (“BSRE”), a private developer, asked Snohomish County to amend its comprehensive plan and zoning regulations to accommodate a mixed use/urban center designation for a 61-acre strip of industrial property known as Point Wells. The Town of Woodway and Save Richmond Beach Inc. (together, “Petitioners”) opposed the project. They believed the area lacked the infrastructure needed to support the new development. Nevertheless, the County moved forward to accommodate BSRE’s proposal.

Over the next several years, the County conducted an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act (“SEPA”) and amended its comprehensive plan and zoning regulations. Petitioners dissented and requested that the growth management hearings board review the County’s plan and regulation changes, which held a hearing on March 2, 2011. Around the same time, BSRE filed two permit applications to develop Point Wells: the first on February 14th and the second on March 4th. On April 25, 2011, the board issued its final order finding that the changes were noncompliant with SEPA and invalidating the plan amendments for interfering with the goals of the Growth Management Act (“GMA”).


In a 6-3 decision, the Court found that the “plain language of the GMA indicates that a later finding of noncompliance under SEPA does not affect rights that have already vested.” Under the GMA, local land use plans and development regulations are presumed valid upon adoption. If the plans and regulations are found to be flawed, the growth management hearings board may enter either a finding of noncompliance (with remand) or invalidity. The GMA explains that a finding of noncompliance “shall not affect the validity of comprehensive plans and development regulations during the period of remand” and a “determination of invalidity does not apply to a completed development permit application”. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “whether or not a challenged plan or regulation is found to be noncompliant or invalid, any rights that vested before the growth board’s final order remain vested after the order is issued.”

Petitioners had argued that actions taken in violation of SEPA’s procedural requirements are void and could not create vested rights, citing a string of non-GMA and pre-GMA cases. The Court was unpersuaded. Instead, the Court determined that the plain language of the GMA and its legislative history show that Washington’s “strong vested rights doctrine” was not disturbed. This decision ensures that development rights in GMA jurisdictions will not be affected by procedural mishaps underlying changes to a comprehensive plan and zoning code