Critical Areas

Whatcom County’s Critical Areas are environmentally sensitive natural resources that have been designated for protection and management in accordance with the requirements of the Growth Management Act. Protection and management of these areas is important to the preservation of ecological functions and values of our natural environment, as well as the protection of the public health, safety and welfare of our community.  

The Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) applies to geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas. (Whatcom County Code (WCC): Title 16.16)

In response to concerns regarding rapid growth occurring in the State of Washington, the Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) in 1990. The Growth Management Act (GMA) required counties and cities to adopt comprehensive land use plans and development regulations to coordinate and manage growth and development, as well as protect the state’s natural resources and critical areas.

After several years of development, study and public input, the Whatcom County Council adopted the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan in May 1997 and the Whatcom County CAO, WCC Chapter 16.16, in October 1997. Under the provisions of the GMA, local jurisdictions must designate and manage regulated critical areas. Development activities within, or adjacent to these critical areas, are required to comply with the provisions of local critical areas ordinances.

Agency Responsibility
The Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS) Department is the primary agency responsible for implementing the Whatcom County CAO.

The provisions of the CAO (PDF) apply to any land use or development within an area that meets the definitions and criteria for critical areas as established in the ordinance. All land use and development permit applications submitted to Whatcom County PDS are reviewed for conformance with the provisions of the CAO.

2016 Update
Whatcom County is in the process of updating its critical areas regulations. The critical areas regulations are those rules in the County Code (WCC 16.16) that address how various environmental resource and hazard areas, including wetlands, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, and habitat conservation areas, are to be addressed when using or developing property. It is anticipated that the project will take 2 years, ending with the adoption of any amendments by mid-2016. For more information click here.