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Shoreline Master Programs

Exempt development

The SMA exempts certain development types from some or all SMA requirements.

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 governments [RCW 90.58.080] shall not require modification of or limit agricultural activities occurring on agricultural lands.
  • Drought emergency projects: Expedited permits and exemptions exist for water supply, fish passage, and boat launch projects under certain 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 chapter 76.09 RCW, are not subject to additional regulations.
  • Energy facility site evaluation council: Under 90.58.140(9), a holder of an energy facility certificate [chapter 80.50 RCW] shall not be required to obtain a permit.
  • Environmental excellence program: Under 90.58.045, any legal requirement under the SMA is superseded and replaced in accordance with the terms and provisions of an environmental excellence program agreement [chapter 43.21K RCW].

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 master program).
  • 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 obtained.
  • 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 [90.58.020].

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 197-11-800.

For more information

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

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