Growth Management Act

Land developers and builders must obtain permits from their local government before carrying out development or building activity. These permits include land use permits, which deal with dividing parcels of land or whether a proposed project can be built on the specified parcel, as well as civil permits, which deal with preparing land, and building permits, which deal with actual structures and focus on ensuring they meet building codes and safety standards.

Washington's Growth Management Act requires certain local governments to issue a decision on permit applications within 120 days from when they determine the application is complete. If they cannot complete an application within 120 days, state law allows them to follow certain processes to extend the deadline. About 50 cities and counties must also publish annual reports on the timeliness of their permit reviews.

To determine whether local governments are complying with the 120-day rule, including the annual reporting requirement, this audit examined processes at six local governments: the cities of Bellingham, Richland, Shoreline and Vancouver, and Kittitas and Snohomish counties. We chose them because they represent high-growth areas in the state.

The report made several recommendations to the audited governments. Additionally, we suggested representatives from all cities and counties that issue such permits consider attending a special informational webinar prepared by our Center for Government Innovation. Learn more about the webinar content and date on our website here.

Read a two-page summary of the report.

Report Number 1034439 Report Credits

Key results

We found the audited local governments often met the statutory requirement to process permits within 120 days. However, actual processing times varied widely due to many factors. Audited governments met the state-mandated deadline for more than 90 percent of building permits, but some struggled to process land use and civil permits in time – often by wide margins. Government staff said the factors involved in delays can include:

  • The complexity of the development
  • Waiting for applicants to submit corrected or missing information
  • Too few permitting staff

Certain local governments must post annual reports on permit review timeliness. Beyond state law requirements, sharing permit review times with applicants helps ensure predictability. However, only one-third of surveyed local governments publicly report on permit timeliness, and even fewer included all information required by law. We examined 18 published government reports on permit processing time, and only four reports contained most required elements.

Finally, we found most audited governments did not fully apply leading practices related to continuous improvement. Often known as Lean process improvements, these practices can help many local governments improve permit processing. By focusing on issues solidly within its control, such as mapping existing processes, accurately recording work time and analyzing performance, a government of any size can become more efficient.


Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) is a series of statutes dating back to 1990. This body of law balances the state’s environmental goals with development and industrial needs in individual communities. For example, it directs local governments to incorporate protections for wetlands and public water supplies into their land use regulations. The regulations could touch on issues such as drainage, flooding and stormwater runoff. Governments must keep such goals in mind as they plan for expected future growth, including adequate housing, capital facilities and utilities.

The GMA’s key requirement is that fast-growing counties and the cities within them must develop comprehensive plans and regulations to guide growth and limit urban sprawl. These comprehensive plans must address timely and fair permit processing, to ensure developers and builders can reliably predict how much time they should allot for obtaining permits when embarking on a construction project.

Currently, 18 counties must follow the GMA’s requirements. In addition, 10 counties have opted to meet GMA standards even though they are not required to do so. These 28 counties comprised roughly 95 percent of the state’s population in 2020.

In addition, state law requires all counties west of the Cascades, with populations greater than 150,000 as of 1996, to publicly report how long it takes them to review permits. Within those counties, cities with populations of at least 20,000 must also report this information. These reports must be posted annually on the local governments’ websites.

Permit processing times set out in statute

Government permit-review processes generally include examining detailed project plans; they often involve multiple subject matter areas across departments and divisions. Reviews often also include managing public notice, hearings and comments.

State law directs local governments that follow GMA to establish time periods for permit reviews that take no more than 120 days from the start of review to the final decision. (They may also establish shorter timelines if they wish.) The 120-day period begins when a government determines the application is complete. The law allows limited exceptions to processing periods longer than 120 days.

Terms in this report

In this report, we referred to three broad categories of permits that are involved in development projects:

  • Land use or planning permits. These address dividing parcels of land or whether a proposed project can be built on the specified parcel. They focus on issues such as compliance with zoning laws, as well as the project’s effect on traffic and proximity to critical areas. The latter could include habitat conservation areas or hazardous areas.
  • Civil engineering or public works permits (also known as “land-disturbing activities permits”). These address preparing land for building. They focus on activities involving utilities, street access, grading and controlling stormwater runoff.
  • Building permits. These address actual structures and focus on ensuring they meet building codes and safety standards.

Mixed performance meeting 120-day deadline

State law sets out a 120-day deadline for local governments to process land use, civil and building permits. Performance of the six local governments against this target varied widely and depended on the type of permit being processed. Audited governments met the state-mandated deadline for more than 90 percent of building permits, but some struggled to process land use and civil permits in time – often by wide margins.

In the case of land use permits, four governments processed at least 75 percent of applications within 120 days. Key factors for slow processing of these permits included project complexity, staffing shortages and inefficient processes.

Washington law gives local governments two ways to make exceptions to the 120‐day rule. However, none of the audited governments documented their process for extending permit deadlines for specific projects. Two audited governments inappropriately used waivers to eliminate permit deadlines entirely.

Good use of some leading practices

The Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation and Assistance (ORIA) has published leading practices for local government permitting. ORIA developed six themes of leading practices in consultation with local governments and the development industry in Washington. The goal: to improve permit processes overall. The six practices include:

  1. Ensure complete applications. Define what constitutes a complete application and communicate it to applicants. Establish a process to verify these required items are present when an application is submitted.
  2. Build mutual understanding. Educate both employees and applicants on the steps of the permit process and why those steps are in place.
  3. Engage stakeholders early. Bring together reviewers and applicants as early as possible, to identify and discuss critical permit requirements to avoid rework later in the process.
  4. Use information technology (IT) tools. Use online application portals and electronic permit tracking systems to improve communication with applicants and maintain accurate project records.
  5. Develop systems for staffing flexibility. Maintain performance during busy periods with approaches such as cross-training, contracting and interlocal agreements.
  6. Analyze processes, performance and costs. Document and analyze the full permit process to reveal trends and prioritize improvements for predictability and efficiency.

The audit found all six audited governments applied the first four of the six practices during the audit period of 2019-2022. However, most auditees had not fully implemented practices #5 and #6.

Governments that were already conducting most permit reviews within the 120-day target might not improve performance dramatically by employing additional leading practices. Nonetheless, periodically analyzing their permitting processes for opportunities to refine them will likely prove helpful. Those governments struggling to meet and improve permitting times can benefit most from implementing all six practices.

Statewide survey shows mixed results in reporting

For this portion of our audit work, we surveyed other local governments that are required to post these reports. We did this so we could measure statewide compliance with this requirement. The survey included 45 required governments.

The survey showed that only one-third of local governments publicly report on permit timeliness, and even fewer included all information required by state law. Those that said they did not post permit performance reports offered three main reasons for not complying with state law:

  • Most mentioned limitations in their IT systems, including having older systems that lacked the functionality necessary to track the data or produce the reports, as well as working to develop and implement new systems.
  • Thirteen said they had concerns about the quality of the data they would report.
  • Seven said they were not aware of the requirement or believed it did not apply to them.

As for completeness of reporting, we found the three required elements least likely to be included were the number of permits:

  • With deadline extensions
  • That met review deadlines
  • That did not meet review deadlines


We made a series of recommendations to the six audited cities and counties to address permit review performance that does not achieve 120-day compliance. We recommended the local governments implement continuous improvement methods, and analyze cost of service and staffing levels. We also made recommendations to address a lack of transparency and predictability for permit applicants in their jurisdictions. 

Process improvement opportunity

The State Auditor’s Office offers robust support to process improvement efforts through our Center for Government Innovation. To date, we have helped 30 cities and eight counties improve their permitting through detailed process improvement programs.

This audit encourages all local governments that handle building and development permits to consider the lessons contained in this report. We invite them to take advantage of our no-cost informational webinar on continuous improvement processes. Our agency’s Center for Government Innovation will present the webinar in June 2024. You can learn more on our website here.