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Shoreline Master Programs

Conditional Use Permits (“CUPs”)

Conditional Use Permits allow greater flexibility in applying use regulations of shoreline master program. A CUP is needed if a proposed use is listed as a conditional use in a local government's environment designation, or if the SMP does not address the use.

A proposal must meet criteria found in state rule and be consistent with other environment and use requirements.

  • A CUP may be required even if a proposed use is otherwise exempt from permit requirements.
  • Local government staff must prepare a written analysis of how proposal complies with conditional use criteria.
  • A local government cannot use a CUP to approve a use that is specifically prohibited in the master program. For example, if a master program prohibits overwater residential uses and appurtenances except docks, an overwater deck would not meet conditional use criteria.
  • Local planners must consider the cumulative impacts of approving conditional uses.
  • County-approved CUPs are sent to Ecology at the end of the local appeal period. Ecology must either approve, deny or condition every CUP within 30 days of receiving a complete permit application.

Ecology encourages local governments to contact shoreline permit review staff early in the process of approving a conditional use permit if difficulties are anticipated.

In the ten-year period from 1993 - 2002, local governments issued 2,626 conditional use and variance permits, of which 101 were denied by Ecology.

Conditional use permit criteria

Uses which are classified or set forth in the applicable master program as conditional uses may be authorized provided that the applicant demonstrates all of the following:

  1. That the proposed use is consistent with the policies of the SMA (RCW 90.58.020) and the master program;
  2. That the proposed use will not interfere with the normal public use of public shorelines;
  3. That the proposed use of the site and design of the project is compatible with other authorized uses within the area and with uses planned for the area under the comprehensive plan and shoreline master program;
  4. That the proposed use will cause no significant adverse effects to the shoreline environment in which it is to be located; and
  5. That the public interest suffers no substantial detrimental effect.

Conditional uses must also meet criteria in WAC 173-27-140 which apply to all development.

A conditional use permit should also be granted in a circumstance where denial of the permit would result in a thwarting of the SMA policy. For instance, an elevated walkway across a portion of marsh providing public access to a public shoreline without interfering with the wildlife, might be authorized by CUP even though the SMP provisions discourage any type of over-water construction.

Local government may include additional general or use specific criteria as provisions in its master program but must include consideration of the above criteria for all listed conditional uses.

Typical conditional uses might include overwater commercial development in an urban environment, bed-and-breakfast inns or restaurants within a rural environment or gravel mining in a conservancy environment.

Some proposals may require both a substantial development permit and a conditional use permit. Other proposals that are not a "substantial development" might require a conditional use permit. Make sure it is clear on the permit and in the public notices what combination of permits is being considered. Failure to specify the permit type(s) is a common reason for permits being returned to local government for proper notice and processing. Permit processes are similar and can be handled together as long as clear and separate decisions are made on each issue.

Cumulative Impacts

In reviewing CUP applications, local governments must consider the cumulative impact over time of granting additional permits for like actions in the area. In other words, if comparable development proposals are likely and were permitted by CUP in the area where similar circumstances exist, the total of the developments must also be consistent with the SMA and must not produce substantial adverse effects to the shoreline environment.

For example, a CUP for a bulkhead and landfill for one site may not have substantial adverse effects by itself. However, a series of bulkheads and fills strung around a bay could seriously effect the shoreline ecosystem. The initial CUP request could be denied based on future cumulative impact. One of the greatest strengths of the CUP process is the ability to deal with cumulative impact, encouraging foresight and planning. The State Supreme Court addressed the regulation of cumulative impacts in Hayes v. Yount, 87 Wn.2d 280, 287-88, 552 P.2d 1038 (1976).

Some proposals may require a substantial development permit and a conditional use (or variance) permit. Other proposals that are not a "substantial development" might require a conditional use permit or variance. Local governments should be sure it is clear on the permit and in the public notices what combination of permits is being considered. Failure to specify the permit type(s) is a common reason for permits being returned to local government for proper notice and processing. Permit processes are similar and can be handled together as long as clear and separate decisions are made on each issue.

For more information

Rule: WAC 173-27-140; WAC 173-27-160

Contact Ecology's shoreline permit reviewer serving your town, city, or county.

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