Shoreline Management Act

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Under state law, local jurisdictions are required to develop and maintain a Shoreline Master Program, consistent with and approved by Washington State Department of Ecology. These programs complete a planning process that results in goals and policies, the designation of shoreline types, and municipal regulations that govern those shorelines.

"Shoreline Master Programs are local land use policies and regulations designed to manage shoreline use. These local programs protect natural resources for future generations, provide for public access to public waters and shores, and plan for water-dependent uses. They are created in partnership with the local community and Ecology, and must comply with the state Shoreline Management Act and Shoreline Master Program Guidelines.Over 260 local programs must be updated by 2014. These updates are a unique opportunity to create a positive future for Washington’s shorelines. We hope you will get involved."


  • Shoreline Master Program Home
  • Table showing status of SMP updates - this seems to be out of date. The snohomish SMP update was signed in 2012 but in 2015 it was described as "underway".
  • The Shoreline Management Act
  • Shoreline Management Guidelines are administrative code published by Ecology in 2003 under WAC 173-26
    • A critical piece of the Guidelines is the statement requiring "No Net Loss"
  • The Municipal Research and Services Center provides a Shoreline Management Act Overview Page which includes a list of precedent setting court cases.
    • Up to three permits are issued for a regulated shoreline action: substantial development, conditional use, and variance permits. Ecology must issue the final decision on conditional use and variance permits.
    • The Shoreline Hearings Board decides on appeals to permit decisions or penalties issued by Jurisdictions or Ecology.
    • "In the granting variances in shorelines cases, consideration must be given to the cumulative impact of additional requests for like actions in the area."
    • Ecology does not have statutory authority to review a substantial development permit issued under and approved SMP.
    • "shoreline master programs (SMPs) developed pursuant to the Shoreline Management Act are not subject to RCW 82.02.020, which prohibits local governments from imposing direct or indirect taxes, fees, or charges on development."
  • File:Kramer et al 2010 using PSNERP for SMPs.pdf analyzes the relationship between PSNERP, a state/federal study of nearshore ecosystem restoration, and Shoreline Master Program implementation.
  • File:Kramer et al 2010 shoreline no net loss framework.pdf describes strategies for quantifying no-net-loss consistent with SMA.
  • Ecology publishes code at WAC 173-26 which defines requirements for implementation of SMA

Best Available Science

SMPs are required to be based on "best available science" and so identifying the sources of "best available science" and making sure they are part of policy development is an important part of SMA implementation. However local jurisdications each must develop their own BAS, and may not have the capacity or skills necessary for synthesis, and so depend on private contractors. Private contracts are expensive, and extensive BAS development may not be feasible for a local jurisdiction. Here are sources of BAS for SMP development.

  • TMDL reports may provide detailed analysis of factors affecting water quality.

No Net Loss

The Section WAC 173.26.186(8a-e) - Governing Principles of the Guidelines provides the critical "no net loss" language which makes the SMA a demanding state requirement for local governments. Determining whether or not local code is sufficient to result in no-net-loss of shoreline functions, is both the standard the determines the efficacy of the law, but is also very difficult to determine or prove. Therefore the development and implementation of a no-net-loss standard is particularly important in evaluating the efficacy of Shoreline Master Program. Emphasis is added with commentary in brackets"

(8) Through numerous references to and emphasis on the maintenance, protection, restoration, and preservation of "fragile" shoreline "natural resources," "public health," "the land and its vegetation and wildlife," "the waters and their aquatic life," "ecology," and "environment," the act makes protection of the shoreline environment an essential statewide policy goal consistent with the other policy goals of the act. It is recognized that shoreline ecological functions may be impaired not only by shoreline development subject to the substantial development permit requirement of the act but also by past actions, unregulated activities, and development that is exempt from the act's permit requirements. The principle regarding protecting shoreline ecological systems is accomplished by these guidelines in several ways, and in the context of related principles. These include:
(a) Local government is guided in its review and amendment of local master programs so that it uses a process that identifies, inventories, and ensures meaningful understanding of current and potential ecological functions provided by affected shorelines.
(b) Local master programs shall include policies and regulations designed to achieve no net loss of those ecological functions.[This suggests that programs shall not result in net loss of potential ecological functions](i) Local master programs shall include regulations and mitigation standards ensuring that each permitted development will not cause a net loss of ecological functions of the shoreline; local government shall design and implement such regulations and mitigation standards in a manner consistent with all relevant constitutional and other legal limitations on the regulation of private property. (ii) Local master programs shall include regulations ensuring that exempt development in the aggregate will not cause a net loss of ecological functions of the shoreline.
(c) For counties and cities containing any shorelines with impaired ecological functions, master programs shall include goals and policies that provide for restoration of such impaired ecological functions. These master program provisions shall identify existing policies and programs that contribute to planned restoration goals and identify any additional policies and programs that local government will implement to achieve its goals. These master program elements regarding restoration should make real and meaningful use of established or funded nonregulatory policies and programs that contribute to restoration of ecological functions [This is significant, because most federal and state restoration programs and actors are directed away from urban shorelines, and so any assumption that those programs and actors will generate gain in function may be specious], and should appropriately consider the direct or indirect effects of other regulatory or nonregulatory programs under other local, state, and federal laws, as well as any restoration effects that may flow indirectly from shoreline development regulations and mitigation standards.
(d) Local master programs shall evaluate and consider cumulative impacts of reasonably foreseeable future development on shoreline ecological functions and other shoreline functions fostered by the policy goals of the act. To ensure no net loss of ecological functions and protection of other shoreline functions and/or uses, master programs shall contain policies, programs, and regulations that address adverse cumulative impacts and fairly allocate the burden of addressing cumulative impacts among development opportunities. Evaluation of such cumulative impacts should consider: (i) Current circumstances affecting the shorelines and relevant natural processes; [This requires that the potential for cumulative impacts from development under climate change and sea level rise to be included as a foreseeable loss of shoreline function] (ii) Reasonably foreseeable future development and use of the shoreline; and (iii) Beneficial effects of any established regulatory programs under other local, state, and federal laws. It is recognized that methods of determining reasonably foreseeable future development may vary according to local circumstances, including demographic and economic characteristics and the nature and extent of local shorelines.
(e) The guidelines are not intended to limit the use of regulatory incentives, voluntary modification of development proposals, and voluntary mitigation measures that are designed to restore as well as protect shoreline ecological functions.