In 2009, Snohomish County amended its comprehensive plan and zoning regulations to allow for a mixed-use/urban-center development in Point Wells. Soon after passage of these amendments, the developer applied for project permits. In the meantime, opponents of the project filed appeals of the amendments to the growth hearings board. Eventually, the hearings board invalidated the amendments as violations of the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA.
Despite invalidation of ordinances that authorized its project, the developer believed it could proceed with construction under Washington’s vested-rights doctrine. Under this doctrine, a developer has a vested right to have its development proposal processed under land use plans and development regulations in effect when the developer files a complete permit application. Once the case headed to the courts, the question was whether a developer can vest its project under ordinances that are later declared invalid.
On April 10, 2014, the Washington Supreme Court weighed in on the issue and ruled that under the unambiguous provisions of the Growth Management Act, local land use regulations are presumed valid upon adoption, and that the hearings board’s declaration of invalidity is prospective only and does not extinguish rights that vested under state or local law.
The opponents rested their argument primarily on cases decided before the Growth Management Act, and they also found some support from three dissenting justices. The dissent noted that the vested-rights doctrine is designed to protect developers from changing laws that were valid in the first place. In a typical vested-rights case, a developer vests its project under the land use rules in effect at the time of filing a complete application. If a county or city changes those valid laws after the developer files the application, then the new laws do not apply. Here, however, the dissent points out that there was no change in a legitimate land use regulation under which the development vested. Rather, the hearings board determined that the land use regulation was invalid as soon as Snohomish County adopted it, and that therefore, no vesting can occur under an invalid law. Despite the surface appeal of the dissent’s point, six justices joined the majority opinion. That opinion further solidifies Washington’s highly protective vested-rights doctrine. To read the opinion in Town of Woodway v. Snohomish County, click here.