Land of Opportunity

Permit extensions and incentives provide opportunities for builders, investors

Local municipalities, as well as the Washington state legislature, are responding to the recession by adopting various new rules to extend land use permits and provide incentives to encourage new development.

These efforts, as well as a split of opinion in the interpretation of the new state law, have resulted in various opportunities for approved and new projects.

Earlier this year, the state legislature enacted a two-year extension for preliminary land division approvals. What appeared to be a simple change from five to seven years has led to different outcomes at the local level. Before concluding that a preliminary plat approval will be valid for another two years, it is important to inquire with the relevant municipality to confirm current rules.

While the law was clearly intended to preserve public and private investments already made in preliminary platting, not all agree that the new law is retroactive. Some attorneys, most notably those in Clark County, have decided that the law does not include the language for retroactive application. With this interpretation, the law would not apply to plats approved before its effective date of June 10.

However, this result is contrary to the law's purpose. In addition, this interpretation is not consistent with the advice published by the Municipal Research Services Center, an organization that provides resources to Washington cities and counties.  

Another difference of opinion is whether any local action is needed to implement the new law.  Vancouver, for instance, is adopting a new ordinance, but other cities, such as Ridgefield, have concluded that a local ordinance is unnecessary. If a city or county has adopted its own ordinance for plat extensions, the ordinance should be reviewed for differences.

Variation is also found in the scope of local ordinances providing for extensions. The state law applies to land divisions only, but those cities and counties adopting local ordinances may include extensions for additional types of permits, including site plan reviews, conditional use permits and variances. For example, Clark County currently extends, for up to one year, preliminary approvals made between June 1, 2004, and June 1, 2006. Although Clark County is not currently interpreting the new state law to automatically extend plats by two years, it is providing extensions of many types of permits for up to one year.

Cities and counties have also adopted different development incentives to jump-start economic development or to help revitalize certain areas.

One option in several cities is to obtain a deferral of impact fees and/or system development charges. Both La Center and Washougal have adopted programs to defer the payment of traffic and park impact fees until occupancy or another event occurs after the issuance of a building permit. Ridgefield has made specific agreements for the deferral of payment of fees on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, local municipalities are adopting or considering some version of the following measures to encourage development, including impact fee reductions or exemptions, expedited review processes and zone changes.

For projects with preliminary approval, the next step is clear: confirm the relevant municipality's current rules for extensions. For new projects, comparing local jurisdictions makes a lot of sense.

Pabst is a land use and real estate attorney with Miller Nash LLP and a partner in the firm's Vancouver office. She can be reached at or 360.699.4771.