The SMA exempts certain development types from some or all SMA
Exemptions for specific activities
There are several specific use exemptions in the SMA. Below
are brief descriptions.
- Agricultural activities: Under 90.58.065,
the guidelines adopted by the department and
master programs developed or amended by local
90.58.080] shall not require modification of
or limit agricultural activities occurring on
- Drought emergency projects: Expedited
permits and exemptions exist for water supply,
fish passage, and boat launch projects under
drought emergency conditions.
- Certain forest practices: Under,
90.58.030(2)(d)(ii), any city or county may
also include in its master program land
necessary for buffers for critical areas,
provided that forest practices regulated under
76.09 RCW, are not subject to additional
- Energy facility site evaluation council:
90.58.140(9), a holder of an energy facility
80.50 RCW] shall not be required to obtain a
- Environmental excellence program: Under
90.58.045, any legal requirement under the
SMA is superseded and replaced in accordance
with the terms and provisions of an
environmental excellence program agreement
Exemptions to Substantial Development Permit (SDP)
The most common exemption is from substantial development
permit (SDP) requirements [RCW
90.58.030(3)(e)]. Most SDP-exempt development must still
comply with the goals, policies and regulations of the
applicable local shoreline program. Development types exempt
from substantial development permits includes:
Guidance for administering exemptions
SMP planners have more questions about the exemption provisions
than any other single section of the Shoreline Management Act.
Most activities that are exempt from substantial development
permits (SDP) must still comply with all development standards
(i.e., setbacks and other regulations in the local shoreline
- The burden of proof that a development or use is exempt from the
permit process is on the applicant.
- Exempt activities may require Variances or Conditional Use Permits.
- Exemptions must be narrowly construed. Under state rules, "only
those developments that meet the precise terms of one or more of the
listed exemptions may be granted exemption from the substantial
development permit process.”
[WAC 173-27-040 (1)(a)]. If there is doubt whether a project meets
the precise terms of a listed exemption, then a permit is required. It
may be useful to
consult with Ecology's shoreline permit reviewer serving your town,
city, or county.
- Exemptions should be in writing, and should include site plans.
Exemption letters should clearly spell out what is being approved.
It might be helpful to note in some cases what is not being
approved in order to avoid misunderstanding or problems later. Local
governments are required to send exemption letters to Ecology if federal
actions are required to approve the project. Local governments are
encouraged to send all exemptions to Ecology.
- Exempt activities may be conditioned.
- If any part of a proposal requires a Substantial Development Permit,
an exemption should not be granted, that is, an SDP would required for
the entire project.
- Activities exempt from SDP permit requirements may need other
permits. One cannot legally begin to build a structure that is exempted
under the SMA until all other local, state and federal permits have been
- Exemptions should be granted only after meaningful review under the
State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), unless the proposed project is
categorically exempt under SEPA.
- Local administrators should beware of incremental exemptions for
activities that in sum would require a permit. Activities such as
clearing, grading, and preloading that typically precede development
should be included in the SEPA review and shoreline permit review for a
development proposal, even if the individual activities are under the
substantial development dollar threshold ($7,047 as of September 2,
2017) or, if conducted as a total project, would be otherwise exempt.
The future intended use and associated design of a site should be
authorized by shoreline permit prior to any grading, filling, dredging,
or other shoreline modification and prior to any subdivision of a site.
- When deciding if a proposed action will be consistent with the law,
consider the broad policies and the specific regulations of both the
Shoreline Management Act and the local master program. The Shoreline Act
includes a "liberal
construction" clause that exempts the law from the rule of
"strict construction." Local governments should use the permit or
exemption process to assure that projects meet the fundamental policy of
the Act to foster all and appropriate uses
A note on SEPA categorical exemptions
SEPA categorical exemptions are not identical to the substantial
development permit exemptions granted under the SMA. Many small projects
will be exempt from both SEPA and the SMA's permit requirements, but
this is not always true. For example, a residential structure of four
dwelling units is usually categorically exempt under SEPA, but is a
substantial development under SMA. In such cases, the local government
should demonstrate compliance with SEPA by attaching a statement of
categorical exemption to the permit submittal package. See
RCW 43.21C and
WAC 197-11-305 and
For more information
Ecology's shoreline permit reviewer serving your town, city,
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