Local compliance with GMA permit timelines varies widely, audit finds

Apr 2, 2024

Certain cities and counties in Washington are required to meet a 120-day deadline to make decisions on development permits. However, the actual processing time varies widely between localities and permit types, a new performance audit found. 

The Office of the Washington State Auditor selected a mix of six high-growth counties and cities to review permit processing under the Growth Management Act. The report released today includes recommendations for improvement that are broadly applicable across the state. 

“As a former county official, I would emphasize our recommendation for continuous improvement of permitting processes,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “A government of any size can become more efficient by focusing on issues solidly within its control, such as mapping existing processes, accurately recording work time and analyzing performance.” 

The audit reviewed Kittitas and Snohomish counties, and the cities of Bellingham, Richland, Shoreline and Vancouver.  

The 120-day decision requirement is intended to give property owners and developers a predictable timeline for permit approval. The audited governments most often missed that mark for land use permits, which deal with dividing parcels of land or whether a proposed project can be built on a specified property. 

For these permits, two governments met the timeline requirement for more than 90 percent of applications, but the timeliness of the others ranged from 79 percent to 24 percent. Auditors attributed the delays to project complexity, government staff shortages and inefficient processes. 

The law allows local governments to make exceptions to the 120‐day rule, but none of the audited governments documented their process for extending permit deadlines for specific projects. Two used waivers to eliminate permit deadlines entirely – which the law does not allow. 

All the audited governments used leading practices related to education and outreach to permit applicants, but most did not fully apply leading practices related to continuous improvement.

City and county planning departments are invited to attend a free webinar on improving permit review processes

The audit identified continuous process improvement as an important leading practice that few audited local governments used effectively.

In this context, the goal is to identify and improve inefficient or cumbersome processes that slow the important work of permit review and approval. Whether the problem lies in poor communication – with applicants or between staff – or in an unclear procedure that leads to errors and rework, our Office’s Center for Government Innovation can likely help local governments “straighten the permitting pipes.”

The Center is holding a no-cost, informative webinar specifically addressing permit process improvements. Our Lean specialist will introduce several tools that can help you improve permit process workflows to achieve greater efficiency, comply with state regulations and build strong work teams. The session includes time to answer questions that can help you decide if a tailored process improvement consultation is right for your city or county.

Date and time: Thursday, June 13 – 9 to 10:30 a.m. 

Sign up to attend via Zoom here.