King County establishes a Planning Department and Board of Adjustment on July 13, 1959.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 5/02/2006
  • Essay 7740
On July 13, 1959, the King County Board of County Commissioners creates a Planning Department and a Board of Adjustment to carry out planning and zoning activities. The action is taken under the new state Planning Enabling Act, which King County Commissioners and planning staff played a key role in getting passed. The Planning Department will take the lead in guiding and regulating land use and development in the County for the next 13 years.

King County Commissioners first created an advisory Planning Commission in 1926. Nine years later the state Legislature authorized creation of Planning Commissions as official bodies to prepare and enforce zoning regulations and the King County Planning Commission took on the responsibility of preparing zoning maps and regulations for adoption by the County Commissioners.

Enabling Legislation

After a 1958 local court decision called into question the County's prior zoning efforts, and exposed perceived deficiencies in the 1935 planning legislation, the Planning Commission and County Commissioners worked with outside consultant Gordon Whitnall, state legislators, and associations representing counties, cities, and professional planners to draft a new Planning Enabling Act, which the Legislature passed in March 1959.

The new act gave counties two options for organizing their planning activity. They could continue with the arrangement in which the planning commission directly supervised planning staff, or they could create a planning department, "which shall be organized and function as any other department of the county" (1959 Laws), with a planning commission assisting in an advisory capacity. In either case, the county was also required to create a board of adjustment to consider applications for conditional use permits (for types of land use that are allowed only when specified conditions are met) and for variances from zoning regulations (allowed when special circumstances are shown).

In a resolution adopted on July 13, 1959, the Board of County Commissioners decided that King County would organize under the Department-Commission option of the Planning Enabling Act. The Planning Department was established as a County department. The Department and a new nine-member advisory Planning Commission replaced the old Commission. As required, a Board of Adjustment was also created.

More Effective Planning

The following year, the Planning Department reported that "Initial operations under the new administrative arrangement have proven very satisfactory and give promise of a more effective organization for planning than had existed previously" (Annual Report). By hearing and deciding conditional use permit applications, the Board of Adjustment eased the workload and allowed planning staff to spend more time on planning matters. Internally, dividing the Planning Department "into three distinct areas of responsibility: planning, zoning, and secretarial has contributed to the increased effectiveness of each of these sections" (Annual Report).

For the first few years of its existence, the Planning Department's primary task was preparing a new comprehensive plan. The innovative new plan was adopted in 1964, followed by significant revisions to the zoning code. Over the years, the Department became more specialized, with divisions for Advance Planning and Research (doing comprehensive planning), Development Planning (which implemented the plan), and Controls Administration (which oversaw regulation and provided support functions).

In the late 1960s, the rising public conciousness of environmental issues began to inform the Department's work, particularly after County voters in 1968 approved the Home Rule Charter, which included a stated goal of preserving a "healthy environment." The Planning Department was abolished in 1972 when the Department of Community and Environmental Development was created and its Land Use Management Division took over most planning and zoning functions.

Sources: 1959 Wash. Laws, Ch. 201; "Planning Commission" Record Group 162.01, and "Planning Department," Record Group 161, King County Archives website accessed April 20, 2006 (; Progress Report: 1958-1959 (Seattle: King County Planning Commission, 1959); Annual Report: June 1, 1959, to May 31, 1960 (Seattle: King County Planning Department, 1960); "History of Planning in King County," in 1994 King County Comprehensive Plan (Bellevue: King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, 1994), Technical Appendix F.

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