Washington State Legislature passes new Planning Enabling Act on March 9, 1959.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 5/02/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7741
On March 9, 1959, the state Legislature approves a new Planning Enabling Act that provides additional authority and procedures for counties to regulate land development. The Act is drafted by legislators and King County planning officials in cooperation with associations representing counties, cities, and professional planners. It is intended to correct perceived deficiencies in older planning legislation and to allow and encourage more effective land use planning. The law is inspired in part by a local court decision that King County's planning and zoning efforts had not followed the procedures of the earlier legislation.

The concept of zoning, in which a local government divides its territory into districts and specifies the types of use, size of structures, and features allowed within each district, originated in the early twentieth century. The first Washington law to expressly authorize land-use planning and imposition of zoning controls was the Planning Commissions Act, which the Legislature passed in 1935. King County reorganized its Planning Commission (which had existed as an advisory group since 1926) under this law and in 1937 enacted its first zoning resolution.

Correcting Deficiencies

All of King County's zoning efforts were called into doubt in July 1958, when Superior Court Judge Malcolm Douglas ruled that the County had not followed the procedures of the Planning Commissions Act. Although it could have appealed (the state Supreme Court later rejected a similar challenge to Seattle zoning), the County speedily -- within three weeks of the ruling -- adopted a new comprehensive zoning plan and zoning code, following the correct procedures.

At the same time, the King County Planning Commission had hired Gordon Whitnall as an outside Planning Consultant to review and recommend changes in its planning procedures. In his analysis, Whitnall not only recommended changes in local regulations and procedures, but also "indicated that some basic legislative deficiencies needed correcting to assure effective planning" (Progress Report 1958-1959). p>Whitnall and the County Planning Commission, planning staff, and Board of County Commissioners worked with state legislators and the Washington Association of County Commissioners, the Association of Washington Cities, and the Pacific Northwest American Institute of Planners to draft a new state Planning Enabling Act. The Act provided an alternative to the earlier Planning Commissions Act as authority for counties to conduct planning and implement zoning controls. (The Legislature amended the original draft so that as passed the Act applied only to counties and not cities or towns.)

The Planning Enabling Act

For the first time, the new Planning Enabling Act provided an option for counties to establish a Planning Department, in addition to a Planning Commission, to carry out planning and zoning activities. It also called for creation of a Board of Adjustment to consider applications for zoning permits.

The Act also defined, and established specific requirements for, both "comprehensive plans" (policies adopted to coordinate planning for land-use development and to guide the drafting of specific regulatory controls) and "official controls" (zoning regulations and maps showing where they apply, land subdivision regulations, and similar measures that directly control land development). Comprehensive plans were required to contain both a "land use element" showing where different types and intensities of uses would be allowed, and a "circulation element" showing major transportation routes.

The state Senate and House of Representatives both gave final approval to the Planning Enabling Act on March 9, 1959. Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) signed the measure into law on March 19. In July, shortly after the new law went into effect, the King County Commissioners brought the County under the Act by creating a Board of Adjustment and a Planning Department that soon set to work preparing a new comprehensive plan.

Sources: 1959 Wash. Laws, Ch. 201; "Planning Commission," Record Group 162.01, and "Planning Department," Record Group 161," King County Archives website accessed April 20, 2006 (http://www.metrokc.gov/recelec/archives/kcarch/recgroup.htm); Progress Report: 1958-1959 (Seattle: King County Planning Commission, 1959); "History of Planning in King County," in 1994 King County Comprehensive Plan (Bellevue: King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, 1994), Technical Appendix F.

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